This is a brilliant video that explains where we are in our understanding of how memory works conceptually.
It’s a short clip from a brilliant organisation called BigThink featuring neuroscience professor Antonio Damasio.
I’ll be honest, I had to watch it twice to fully grasp how memory works according to Antonio’s description, but once you do, it’s enlightening!
If you get stuck, read on, where I’ve transcribed some small sections and explained them a little further.
How Memory Works
So, as Antonio says, the old idea about memory was that you would experience something in all its aspects (visual, sonic, kinesthetic) and then all those signals would be sent to a specific region of the brain to be processed, interpreted and stored (remembered).
Nowadays, science understands that we process the information around us in the working memory (for an explanation of working memory check out this explanation from Simple Psychology). From there, each part of what you see converges into different points around the brain and then diverges, both back on itself and into other points around the brain.
To think about how memory works, imagine yourself at a party…
The perception of how a person sounded goes to one point in the brain and then loops back on itself, while the perception of where you were at the time goes another and loops back on itself, anchoring both thoughts in all the places it went to within the brain.
The memory only comes when you reactivate these different parts of the brain to play the memory back:
So, the idea is that when you are asked to remember a certain experience that you had today in which you’re talking with Person A, listening to the person’s voice, but you also are in a certain context B – which is the context of a certain room in a certain building – you’re going to have the separate recordings of the voice of the person, the sight of the person, the place.
But, those recordings are going to be reactivated only if another recording of the simultaneity of the event has been made in a convergence divergence zone.
So, you send signals forward, through convergence, and then divergence will allow for what I call the process of retro activation. The retro activation is going to take place in different sites at the same time, approximately, or in rapid sequence at those difference places. Like, for example, when we replay music in our minds.
These convergence/divergence zones can be spread throughout the brain and only when you ‘record’ the whole event, as well as its composite parts, can you have a good memory of what happened.
It’s a little like creating the outline of a jigsaw, and then filling it in using all the parts of the experience.
Why Memory Sometimes Doesn’t Work
As well as discussing how memory works, Professor Damasio also explains why memories can often be incorrect, despite our certainty that they’re right:
You’re always trying to get at some approximation of what went on rather than an exact recording of what went on. That’s where the big difference between the recordings in terms of a photograph or in terms of a celluloid picture comes.
We are not like that. We don’t have these – all of the celluloid or polaroid pictures filed in someplace and we don’t just replay them in a screening room. We have something that is both far more complex, but at the same time far more economic and that it also – to a certain extent because of its fragmented nature – far more prone to error.
This goes a long way to explaining why witness statements of events or crimes often differ wildly from one another.
Each person focuses on different things as a result of their previous experiences, as well as their stress levels and what they perceive as a threat.
Consequently 5 witness statements for one event could all be different because, as Antonio says ‘because of its fragmented nature, [its] far more prone to error’.
Did I succeed in helping you understand how memory works? Let me know what you think, or if you have any questions, leave them in the comments section below.
Category: Memory Power Tips