Memory Processes

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We have already looked at the different stages of memory formation (from perception to sensory memory to short-term memory to long-term memory) in the section on Types of Memory. This section, however, looks at the overall processes involved. Memory is the ability to encode, store and recall information. The three main processes involved in human memory are therefore encoding, storage and recall (retrieval). Additionally, the process of memory consolidation (which can be considered to be either part of the encoding process or the storage process) is treated here as a separate process in its own right. Some of the physiology and neurology involved in these processes is highly complex and technical (and some of it still not completely understood), and lies largely outside the remit of this entry level guide, although at least a general introduction is given here. More information on the architecture of the human brain, and the neurological processes by which memory is encoded, stored and recalled can be found in the section on Memory and the Brain. In this section:

* Memory Encoding
* Memory Consolidation
* Memory Storage
* Memory Recall/Retrieval

Memory Processes
??? Did You Know ???
Studies suggest that characteristics of the environment are encoded as part of the memory trace, and can be used to enhance retrieval of the other information in the trace. In other words, you can recall more when the environments are similar in both the learning (encoding) and recall phases. Thus, deep-sea divers tend to remember their training more effectively when trained underwater rather than on land, and students perform better on exams by studying in silence, because exams are usually done in silence. Encoding is the crucial first step to creating a new memory. It allows the perceived item of interest to be converted into a construct that can be stored within the brain, and then recalled later from short-term or long-term memory. Encoding is a biological event beginning with perception through the senses. The process of laying down a memory begins with attention (regulated by the thalamus and the frontal lobe), in which a memorable event causes neurons to fire more frequently, making the experience more intense and increasing the likelihood that the event is encoded as a memory. Emotion tends to increase attention, and the emotional element of an event is processed on an unconscious pathway in the brain leading to the amygdala. Only then are the actual sensations derived from an event processed. The perceived sensations are decoded in the various sensory areas of the cortex, and then combined in the brain’s hippocampus into one single experience. The hippocampus is then responsible for analyzing these inputs and ultimately deciding if they will be committed to long-term memory. It acts as a kind of sorting center where the new sensations are compared and associated with previously recorded ones. The various threads of information are then stored in various different parts of the brain, although the exact way in which these pieces are identified and recalled later remains largely unknown. Although the exact mechanism is not completely understood, encoding occurs on different levels, the first step being the formation of short-term memory from the ultra-short term sensory memory, followed by the conversion to a long-term memory by a process of memory consolidation. The process begins with the creation of a memory trace or engram in response to the external stimuli. An engram is a hypothetical biophysical or biochemical change in the neurons of the brain, hypothetical in the respect that no-one has ever actually seen, or even proved the existence of, such a construct. An organ called the hippocampus, deep within the medial temporal lobe of the brain, receives connections from the primary sensory areas of the cortex, as well as from associative areas and the rhinal and entorhinal...
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