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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Discovering the mystery of memory


I once heard a comedienne do a riff on getting older. She said, “When I was young, I thought getting lucky meant I went out and met someone I wanted to see again. Now I think I “got lucky” if I walk into a room and remember why I went in there.” Memory…or lack of it…is often the topic of conversation with older folks along with an ever present fear of Alzheimer’s, but I hear people of all ages saying things like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me…I can’t seem to remember anything these days.” There are many reasons beyond aging, too broad to cover in this article, but one tidbit that scientists have figured out is that walking through a doorway into a different space does affect memory. Scientists have learned a lot about memory science, but much still remains a mystery.
The topic has always fascinated me, because I have always thought I had a poor memory, and swore when I was in my 20’s that I would remember that when I hit my 60’s, so as not to blame it all on my age. Through the years, I recognized that I was better with some types of memory than others. For example, I’m a visual, kinesthetic learner, so my memory is enhanced by visual input and a physical connection with the task or information. I’ve never been very good at what I thought of as mental networking, which is more auditory. I could run into someone who I’d wanted to talk to about something, but my intended topic never came to mind…until later. “Darn! I should have said…” and I end up calling or emailing to follow up. It felt as if these nuggets of information were sitting in separate compartments, refusing to connect through a hallway with closed doors. You may experience this when you don’t recognize people out of the context where you met them.
Scientists have discovered that different types of memory reside in different parts of the brain, and it takes multiple segments of the brain working together to be able to receive information and then encode, sort, store, and retrieve it. In a complex system of chemicals and electricity interacting, the nerve cells–or neurons–receive information and connect with other cells at a gap known as a synapse. The information is exchanged through messengers called neurotransmitters, which are triggered by electrical pulses.
When we recall a memory, the same neurons from the original experience are reactivated and duplicate the moment. Repeated connections strengthen the synapses, and repetitions and new experiences constantly rewire the brain in a process called neuroplasticity. At any given time, 100 billion neurons are passing signals to one another through more than 100 trillion synapses. Some areas of the brain can grow with repeated use as evidenced in a study with London cabbies whose hippocampi, significant in spatial memory, grew larger the longer they drove their routes.
I have jokingly explained memory lapses as an overload of information that causes extraneous information to spill out of our heads and splat on the ground. In reality, something like that happens. The stimuli our senses pick up gets stored in the hippocampus and analyzed to determine what is worth retaining in long-term memory. The neurons associated with the “winning” memories are sent to the neocortex, the neural tissue that forms the outside surface of the brain. The amygdala, located in the temporal lobe, also gets in the act, working with the hippocampus to infuse recollections with emotions, such as fear, grief, joy, sadness, love, or shame. Those memories charged with strong emotion are often the ones we remember more vividly, but the intensity can do the opposite, altering or clouding memories.
For example, consider when you walk into a house you’re considering buying, your senses will take in lots of impressions: the feeling of the house, the colors, spatial dimensions, smells and sounds. The realtor put some vanilla in a warm oven so the house smells yummy. You’ll notice the kitchen canisters are the same ones your mom had, the appliances are perfect, and the cabinets remind you of the house you loved and had to leave in fourth grade. You fall in love with the house, but later can’t remember if it had a dining room or a back porch. That’s described as buying a kitchen and getting the rest of the house along with it.
The prefrontal cortex in the front lobe takes responsibility for working memory, letting you reason and do things such as paying your bills or baking a cake. It also connects with the amygdala to help moderate emotional responses. If this connection is damaged, it’s harder to overcome fear or resolve disturbing memories, as is often seen with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
I am particularly intrigued with the workings of memory in the emotional climate we’re experiencing in our country during this election cycle. I have always failed to understand why average people would be gung-ho, cheering at the prospect of engaging militarily, endangering the lives of young men and women. I participated in a recent protest at an Ely intersection opposing the threatened war with Iran. Amidst an overwhelming positive response from passers-by, a handful of people yelled, “Trump 2020!” or “Get a life!” (a not-very-clever comment that has never made sense to me.) The school-age girls with us carried signs that said, “Kids are kids everywhere.” and “My future friends live in Iran.” And I wished I’d made a sign that said, “Remember.”
Because I do remember Vietnam, seeing dear, gentle friends drafted into a war they didn’t believe in, while the women of my generation lost brothers, friends, and potential mates to death and crippling physical and mental disabilities. I remember Operation Desert Storm in 1991, which destroyed vital infrastructure, causing crippling, long-lasting devastation to the civilian population. I remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003, beginning another protracted, un-winnable war; and then Afghanistan with the ongoing loss of soldiers and civilians. A 2018 Brown University report on the U.S. wars and military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan found that over 750,000 soldiers and civilians died (and possibly many more went uncounted) with another 10 million people displaced due to violence.
I remember the wasted money; these wars and actions have cost American taxpayers $5.9 trillion since 2001, almost $2 trillion more than all federal government spending during the 2017-18 fiscal year.
So, why do people say, “Go, Trump!,” when he so clearly behaves in an uncaring, amoral, narcissistic, egotistical manner, often spouting incomprehensible nonsense, contradicting himself? I think political strategists fully understand the dynamics of fear in our psyches and memories and have cynically fine-tuned the use of it to manipulate and sway voters. To take one example, they have harped on the fear of “others” taking what is “rightfully ours” to promote racist and xenophobic emotional responses, a strategy often used in the interest of tyranny. Their negative messages are repeated through ads, biased talk shows, pseudo news broadcasts, and even from official White House spokespeople. The bonds of those neural pathways are strengthened. Reason does not prevail. We need to keep our memories alive while pursuing our values.
Information for this article came from The Science of Memory, a collection of articles published by Meredith Corporation.


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