Friday, November 6, 2009

Forget memory, try this!

I have a notoriously horrible memory. I once forgot who one of my friends was during the summer between 5th and 6th grade. I thought I'd never met them before. I'm always forgetting something no matter what I'm doing. This post is all about memory, including some ways to help you remember things if you are anything like me. Somehow I've managed to not forget about this blog yet. It never fails to amaze me that I can bring forth the phone numbers of people I haven't called in months or the full lyrics to songs I haven't heard in years. The human mind, even one that's slightly insane, is an amazing thing.

This post is a prelude to a week-long series which I will start on Monday. Each day of the week I will cover one of the five senses. Since I consider memory to be a sense, but not in the traditional, ah, "sense" and since memory draws heavily upon all other senses, I decided to do this post in advance.

Memory is a fascinating thing involving many parts of the brain and a complex filing process which allows efficient access to memories. When we as humans encounter something we store it by breaking it down into sensory components. When we need to bring up the memory again, we simply access the impression made on our senses at that time. Sometimes memories are thrust upon us, beamed up to the forefront of our minds due to external stimuli.

For example, a year or so ago I was at a relative's house when they served sharp cheddar cheese. I had not eaten sharp cheddar in a few years nor had I been in the vicinity of any. When I smelled the cheese I was bombarded with an onrush of sensations from many years before, when I had been shopping with my mother at Ballards deli. The store smelled strongly of sharp cheddar and whenever we stopped there I would recieve a small sample from the employees. I remembered the layout of the store, the hall with tanks of lobsters, the rough wooden flooring. Before I took a whiff of that cheese, I had forgotten that Ballards even existed. Smell is said to be the most powerful memory sense and one of the oldest senses we have. Here is a link to learn more.

This is an excerpt from this site about how we remember general concepts as opposed to objects or events. It's a very similar process.
Recalling memories re-fires many of the same neural paths we originally used to sense the experience and, therefore, almost re-creates the event. Memories of concepts and ideas are related to sensed experiences because we extract the essence from sensed experiences to form generalized concepts.
Consider Sir Isaac Newton, for example. Newton "hammered wooden pegs" into the ground, and "cut sundials into stone" to measure the Sun's movement through the sky, writes James Gleick in Isaac Newton. "This meant seeing time as akin to space, duration as length ...." Newton generalized what he observed into a concept of time.

The sense that we most commonly use in memory is the sense we use the most throughout our daily lives, sight. It's quite simple really, you see the laundry basket on the floor and are reminded that if you don't do your laundry you won't have any clothes for tomorrow (on a related note, brb). You see a trinket given to you by a long-forgotten friend and suddenly recall their address. You find a toy from your childhood and remember sitting on the floor having adventures. Etc, etc.

I know I'm forgetting a bunch of stuff that I meant to add to this post, but as my mind just went blank I'll have to update later. Maybe. Anywho, have a good night all.

EDIT : The human brain can store anywhere between 500 and 1000 terabytes of information! WOW! I must be an older model, cause I estimate my capacity at maybe eight gigs. (sweet, I fit on my thumb drive!)