Neural Basis of Memory & Learning

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

This lesson is a brief overview of the ways that neurons (nerve cells) control what you learn and what you remember. We will briefly discuss how chemicals impact the process, and how your perceptions become something more permanent.

What is the Neural Basis of Memory and Learning?

Have you ever wondered how you remember things? It seems almost magical, how you can look at a friend or a picture and then bring them up in your mind, as if you have some sort of copy machine inside your brain. In this lesson, we'll discuss some of the chemistry and human biology that makes it all work.

Neurons and Neurochemicals

What kinds of things do you remember? Seeing a fly on the wall, hearing a sound in the background, or smelling coffee are all stored briefly in short-term memory, but unless there are meaningful connections to other parts of your brain, those sensory experiences will fade and be lost. On the other hand, accidentally pounding your thumb with a hammer or listening to a rich music piece will tend to form a more permanent impression.

Memories are stored by the neurons in your brain
Brain Neuron

Neurons (long nerve cells that communicate within your body) send signals between your body and your brain across junction points called synapses, which act like phone connections, controlling the flow of information. Your body is constantly generating new sensory signals, like feeling a breeze, overhearing a conversation, or smelling food cooking. Most are ignored, experienced but then replaced immediately. Your reactions to your senses are controlled by certain chemicals, called neurotransmitters and neurohormones.


Neurotransmitters are like the electronic connections in your telephone. They control whether a signal travels from one neuron to the next. There are many kinds of neurotransmitters in your body. For example, some amino acids (building blocks for constructing proteins in your body), such as glutamate, glycine, and aspartate, act as neurotransmitters, either helping or hindering the transmission of information across synapses.

Sometimes, these chemicals also perform the function of neurohormones, controlling organs all over your body. They can affect the way you feel and the way you behave. Biogenic amines, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine, are well-known for the effects they have on your system, making you feel good after a turkey dinner or sneeze after you breathe an allergen.

An extremely important neurotransmitter in your body is acetylcholine, which helps control important muscles responses, like your breathing and heartbeat, and also helps your brain form your memory and thought structures.

Neurohormone graphic

The Finger-Burning Incident

So, what does all of this have to do with your memories and learning experiences? Neurons and their associated control chemicals tend to run the show. For example, suppose you burn your finger on the stove. If it weren't for your neural responses, you wouldn't even know your finger was burning! Your nervous system, being the alert system that it is, immediately goes to work. Two different kinds of nerve communication lines begin to send signals to your brain.

The instant the living skin cells begin to heat up beyond their normal temperature levels, unsheathed (slow) neurons begin to send chemical feedback into your bloodstream. Hormones begin to get involved, altering your emotions. Non-emergency signals head toward your brain. 'Getting a little warm down here!' Once the temperature gets too high and damage begins to occur, new chemicals are produced and released, which activate your sheathed (fast) neural lines. Like an emergency phone to a police station, they cause reactions in your brain's motor cortex (muscle control center), causing your arm to jerk away from the burner.

Sheathed neural connections carry simple signals much faster

Your body's neurons busily transfer sensory information to and from your brain, and your brain's neurons create memories and learning. The final interpretation of your experiences occurs in your cerebral cortex (your awareness center), where you convert experiences into memories and meaningful connections. In fact, you might grin to yourself and say, 'I won't make that mistake again!'

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