Source: image brain function: public domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/53/El_cerebro_seg%C3%BAn_Fludd.jpg?uselang=enmri; image memories: public domain; http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/Old_memories_-_Longbeach_--_Canterbury.jpg?uselang=enmri
One of the most important aspects of human psychology is memory, or the way the mind acquires, encodes, stores, and later uses information. This is a process that's behind all of the higher level mental processes that we use. For example, you can't form opinions about other people if you don't remember, first, who they are, or what kind of prior experiences you had with those types of people. You can't plan for things in the future if you immediately forget what those plans are, and all these different sorts of things that we do within our minds.
As important as memory is, knowledge about how memory actually works is somewhat limited. Which is to say, we know that there are certain brain structures that are involved with forming memories, and how memories work.
For example, we know the hippocampus, which is a structure that's located inside the brain as part of the limbic system, helps in the formation and organization of new kinds of memories. We know that when we learn, new connections are created between neurons. So there are new dendrites and axons that sort of branch together, and create those kinds of connections. And that there are certain areas of the cerebral cortex-- this wrinkly outer layer-- that are responsible for certain types of memory. So there isn't one specific area in the brain that's devoted entirely to memory.
But exact studies about memory can be somewhat difficult, especially considering the nature of memory, and how it works. So a lot of that biological study is a bit more limited. However, we do know some ideas about the process of memory, and all the different steps that occur to form new kinds of memory. So let's go over some of those in detail.
In the process of forming new kinds of memories, we first start with all of the sensory information that's constantly going all around us. So things like sights, smells, taste, touch. Anything that we can hear. All the kinds of stuff that's going on around us. And most of this, we don't remember, or we don't even pay attention to. If you think about it, there's way too much going on around us, and we can't take it all in at once. So all of this sensory information goes into our sensory memory.
This is where we start. And this is a brief, normally unconscious, copy of the sensory information all around us, within our brains. Which can either be discarded-- which happens to the majority of it, just gotten away with-- or it can be remembered for later use.
We have different kinds of sensory memory. We have iconic memory, which is any kind of visual or site information that we take in, as well as echoic language, which is the auditory or hearing information that we take.
So again, most of this sensory memory is unconscious. We're not paying attention to everything around us. If we were, it wouldn't go necessarily go to the sensory information. It would jump right ahead to the encoding stage. That's the attention part. So this information in our sensory memory only lasts for a few seconds. It can either be used, or completely forgotten.
For example, if we were walking through a crowded area, and we see all of these people around this, we're taking in information about the way their faces look into our sensory memory. But most of the time we just forget what they look like, because they're not what we consider to be important. However, if we were walking, and we suddenly saw a clown walking around, we might all of a sudden divert our attention to that. So suddenly, that sensory memory becomes important to us in some way. Then, we would process it further, and make that a part of our general memory.
Once information passes from our sensory memory, there are three steps that this information would go through to be considered part of our memory.
The first one is encoding, which is where the brain processes this sensory information into a form that can be remembered. For example, if you see a person in a clown costume, it doesn't really make a lot of sense to you. So you might think to yourself, wow there's a person in a clown costume, they must be going to a party. Or there's a clown convention in town. Or are you might think that's just really weird. Each of which creates some kind of meaning out of that sensory information. You're saying, there's a clown, and you're attaching some kind of information further to it.
So this processing of that sensory information is the first step in remembering it.
Second, we have the storage stage, which is when the brain holds on, and retains that information for later use. So that information is kept in the brain as either short-term or long-term memory. And we'll go into each of those in detail, in later lessons.
And finally we have the retrieval stage, which is the last stage, in which a person remembers the information that was stored, or they retrieve that information from storage for later use. So in the example of the clown that we saw, if you go to work later on, you might tell your co-worker, well this is the strange thing that I saw. So you're recalling, or retrieving, that information. Or you might tell your friends or family later on, when you get home.
So these are the three basic steps in the creation of new kinds of memories.