How Human Memory Works (and How It Fools Us)

We tell you all the psychological and neuroscientific keys to understand its operation.

Many people believe that memory is a kind of storage where we store our memories. Others, more friends of technology, understand that memory is more like a computer on whose hard disk we archive our learnings, experiences and life experiences, so that we can call on them when we need them.

But the truth is that both conceptions are wrong.

So how does human memory work?

We do not have any memory as such stored in our brain. That would be, from a physical and biological point of view, literally impossible.

What the brain consolidates in memory are “patterns of functioning “, that is, the way in which  specific groups of neurons are activated each time we learn something new.

I don’t want to make a big mess out of this, so I’ll just limit myself to saying that any information that enters the brain is converted into a chemical electrical stimulus.

Neuroscience of memories

What the  brain stores is the particular frequency, amplitude, and sequence of the neural circuits involved in learning. A specific fact is not stored, but the way in which the system works in the face of that specific fact.

Then, when we remember something consciously or without our intention to do so, an image comes to mind, what our brain does is to re-edit that specific operating pattern again. And this has serious implications. Perhaps the most important is that our memory deceives us.

We do not retrieve the memory as it was stored, but rather we put it back together each time we need it from the reactivation of the corresponding functioning patterns.

The “defects” of memory

The problem is that this evocation mechanism occurs en bloc. Putting the system into operation can stow away other memories that have leaked out, that belong to another time or place.

Science and interference

I am going to tell you about an experiment that shows how vulnerable we are to memory interference, and how we can be subtly led to remember something in the wrong way, or that it just never happened.

A group of people were shown a video in which a traffic accident could be observed, specifically the collision between two vehicles. They were then divided into two smaller groups and questioned separately about what they had seen. Members of the first group were asked to roughly estimate how fast the cars were traveling when they “collided.”

Members of the second group were asked the same thing, but with a seemingly insignificant difference. They were asked how fast they estimated the cars were moving when one “embedded” into the other.

Members of the latter group, on average, calculated much higher values ‚Äč‚Äčthan those of the first group, where the cars had simply “collided.” Some time later, they were reunited in the lab and asked for details about the accident from the video.

Twice as many members of the group in which the cars had “embedded” in relation to members of the other group said they had seen windshield glass shattered and scattered on the sidewalk. It should be noted that in the video in question no windshield had been broken.

We hardly remember

We believe that we can remember the past accurately, but we cannot. The brain is forced to reconstruct the memory each time we decide to retrieve it; It must be put together as if it were a puzzle of which, to top it all, it does not have all the pieces, since much of the information is not available because it was never stored or filtered by the care systems.

When we recall a certain episode in our life, such as the day we graduated from university, or when we got our first job, the recovery of the memory does not occur in a clean and intact way as when, for example, we open a text document in our computer, but the brain must make an active effort to track information that is scattered, and then, put together all those diverse and fragmented elements to present us with a version as solid and elegant as possible of what happened.

The brain is responsible for “filling in” memory gaps

The potholes and blank spaces are filled in in the brain by scraps of other memories, personal conjectures and abundant pre-established beliefs, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a more or less coherent whole that satisfies our expectations.

This basically happens for three reasons:

As we said before, when we live a certain event, what the brain stores is a pattern of operation. In the process, much of the original information never makes it into memory. And if you enter, it is not consolidated in memory effectively. That creates bumps in the process that take away from the congruence of the story when we want to recall it.

Then we have the problem of false and unrelated memories mixing with the real memory when we bring it to consciousness. Here something similar happens to when we throw a net into the sea, we can catch some small fish, which is what interests us, but many times we also find garbage that at some point was thrown into the ocean: An old shoe, a plastic bag, a bottle empty of soda, etc.

This phenomenon occurs because the brain is constantly receiving new information, consolidating learning, for which it often resorts to the same neural circuits that are being used for other learning, which can cause some interference.

Thus, the experience that you wish to archive in memory can be merged or modified with previous experiences, causing them to end up being stored as an undifferentiated whole.

Giving sense and logic to the world around us

Finally, the brain is an organ interested in making sense of the world. In fact, he even seems to have an aberrant hatred for uncertainty and inconsistencies.

And it is in his eagerness to explain everything when, unaware of certain data in particular, he invents them to get out of trouble and thus save face. We have another crack in the system here, dear friend. The essence of memory is not reproductive, but reconstructive, and as such, vulnerable to multiple forms of interference.

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