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HUMAN

MEMORY PROCESS: HOW THE BRAIN ENCODES, STORES, AND


RETRIEVES INFORMATION
By Bridget Corey

INTRODUCTION
Our individual memories are what make us who we are, and they are essential to the human experience;
in short, they give our lives meaning. Thus, human memory, as intangible as it is, undoubtedly anchors
our lives, so it is crucial to dissect its complexities and possibilities, because without it, we are nothing.
In addition, memory is certainly an extremely complex concept that both affects and is affected by many
things. The emotional factors that have played into our past life experiences greatly affect how well and
how accurately we remember; thus it is important to address how memory is stored and retrieved
through the brain. Memory is often very pliable, and it is possible that no memory is ever exactly how we
recall it due to many factors such as continually repeating the memory in our minds, or conversation
creates a greater chance of altering the memory.
As a result, this document focuses its discussion on the fundamental ways in which human memory
works. The text educates the reader on the two main memory systems, short-term and long-term
memory, as well as how the human brain encodes, stores, and later retrieves the memories created.

THE HUMAN MEMORY SYSTEM


Human memory is fundamentally the ability to encode, store, retain and recall information and past
experiences in the brain, and it allows us to use the things we observe to influence how we think, learn,
adapt and create connections with others. In scientific terms, memory is made up of several systems and
processes that reconstruct what we perceive so that our neurons can form new connections in the brain.
The two major kinds of memory, short-term and long-term, are explained below.









The Parts of the Human Brain associated with memory


Image adapted from: http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_07/d_07_cr/d_07_cr_tra/d_07_cr_tra.html

SHORT-TERM MEMORY
Short-term memory is the part of the human memory system in which information is stored only briefly,
for approximately 30 seconds. It is widely known as the Post-it note of the brain due to its function as a
way of temporarily remembering information being readily processed. It must be noted that short-term
memory has a limited capacity for storing information. The main part of the brain where short-term
memory occurs is in the prefrontal cortex, which controls the neural loops for visual data and language.
Furthermore, the visual neural loop stimulates areas near the visual cortex to remember images while the
language neural loop, also called the phonological loop, utilizes the Brocas area to take in words and
sounds. Overall, these two loops process the data and store it until new information needs to be
processed. Short-term memory, however, can be transformed into long-term memory as well, through
the encoding process discussed later in the document.

LONG-TERM MEMORY
Long-term memory is the part of the human memory system that stores information permanently so that
it can be retrieved in the future. In contrast to short-term memory, it has no limits in terms of how much
information it can keep and how long it can store the information. Also in opposition to short-term
memory, long-term memory processes information semantically, which means it uses meaning and
associations to remember the information. Physiologically, it requires the structure of the brains
neurons to strengthen more stably and permanently, and the information is processed through the
hippocampus, and then is stored elsewhere in a broad range of areas throughout the brain. The two main
kinds of long-term memory are declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memory consists of
remembering facts and events, thus it is often described as conscious memory because the information is
declared rather than shown through acts. Non-declarative memory is otherwise known as procedural or
unconscious memory because it constitutes remembering skills, and is usually obtained through practice
and repetition.

THE HUMAN MEMORY PROCESS


Given the knowledge of the major types of the formation of memory, this section delves into the main
processes that create human memory. The three main parts to memory function are encoding, storing
and retrieving information.

Initial Memory Storage in the Brain: The Encoding, Storage and Retrieval Processes
In total, the human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, which are nerve cells that carry
messages between the brain and the rest of the body. As we store memories, we are essentially
depositing specific information we have perceived in our lives into our neurons in several parts of the
brain. More specifically, this memory storage initiates communication and interaction between our
neurons, thus each memory we retain causes the memorys respective subset of neurons to be tweaked.
Moreover, it must be noted that memories are not stored like books on a book shelf, but are instead
encoded into constructs that can be stored and then recalled later.
The encoding process begins as a person uses his/her senses to perceive something. Then, this
awareness, which is regulated by the thalamus and the frontal lobe, triggers the neurons to interact more
intensely, thus increasing the probability that the event would be encoded as a memory. The perceptions
are decoded in the several sensory areas of the cortex, which in turn are merged into a single experience
in the brains hippocampus. The hippocampus analyzes the inputs, by comparing and associating them


with past inputs, then deciding whether or not to store them as long-term memory. Based on the
different characteristics of the information perceived, it is stored in one of various areas of the brain,
however the precise way in which these memories are recognized and retrieved in the future is remains
unclear.
There are three main ways in which memory can be encoded: visually, acoustically, and semantically.
Through visual encoding, the brains amygdala within the medial temporal lobe accepts visual input such
as images or visual sensory information and encodes the positive or negative values of conditioned
stimuli. During acoustic encoding, translates sounds, words and other forms of auditory information for
storage and later retrieval. Finally, semantic encoding originates from a broader sensory input rather
than from a specific sense through its meaning and association with a certain context.
After the initial acquisition of information and the encoding process, comes the act of memory storage.
The storage process fundamentally consists of retaining information in the brain, in which memories are
stored in groups of neurons that are trained to respond uniformly in the exact way that they were
originally created. Namely, the type of memory dictates where the groups of neurons are stored. For
instance, for an image they are stored in the visual cortex, or for an emotional memory they are stored in
the amygdala.
Finally, the process of memory retrieval involves re-accessing information stored in the past, and is widely
known as remembering. Essentially, the brain repeats the specific pattern of neural activity that was
initially created, ultimately mirroring the brains experience during the actual past event. It entails a
revisiting of the neural pathways that were created during the encoding process, and in effect, the
particular strength of the pathway ultimately determines how easily and quickly the memory can be
retrieved.

CONCLUSION
The human brain and memory are two very complex mechanisms being studied everyday because of their
importance in how we live. By understanding the different kinds of memory, and the processes involved,
we can ultimately help many people, such as those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or even
Alzheimers disease. Overall, this document aims to outline the main parts of human memory to give the
reader a foundation in understanding the complex web of memory because as mentioned before, it is
extremely elusive and multifaceted.