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The Psychology of Memory: Forging Pathways Through the Brain
One thing you’ll definitely need to bring to class is a working memory. Read on to explore the process by which memories are embedded into our brains.
The capital of New Zealand. Last year’s Oscar winner for Best Actress. Can you bring these names to mind, or do they feel like they’re just out of reach, dancing on the tip of your tongue? In fact, cognitive psychologists formally describe this phenomenon as a TOT—tip-of-tongue—state, and it can help illustrate the complex processes that occur (or fail to) as the brain embeds and retrieves information for later use.
One thing that a TOT state tells us is that memory is not a matter of sending a search query into the brain’s depths and coming back with a complete unit of experience (i.e., having studied New Zealand in sixth grade) that we’d once filed away. Different parts of memories are stored in different regions throughout the brain, depending on their nature—words, for instance, are not kept in the same place as faces. That storage system gets kicked into gear as each thing we see, touch, smell, and hear is processed by our sensory and short-term memories, where the information is mulled over for a few seconds and either discarded or transferred to long-term storage. Through rehearsal, or repetition, a short-term memory becomes a long-term one, where it resides among our most deeply embedded recollections: a wedding, the birth of a child, the words to our favorite mattress-store jingle.
Acquiring new skills creates additional pathways, which—like ruts in a dirt road—grow deeper with repeated use. Likewise, learned skills can disappear following periods of neglect. Over time, the brain prunes unused connections, which helps to explain how you can forget a second language once you stop speaking it regularly.
Some memories, however, seem impossible to forget. This typically happens when a memory is associated with a heightened emotional or physical response. “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” is a question any baby boomer will likely have an answer to. In a classroom, teachers can use these physical and emotional associations to their advantage, teaching material with hands-on methods that stimulate different regions of the brain to create an abundance of connections between memory and knowledge.