The Brain's Function in Memory Storage

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.

The human brain has enormous capacity to remember experiences, thoughts, and other information. In this lesson, we'll discuss the interactions between your cerebral cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebellum during memory storage and retrieval.

How does the Brain Provide Memory Storage?

Ever wonder why you can remember some things and you just can't hold onto others? You remember last summer's visit to the beach, almost down to the last detail, but last week's grocery list or your recent conversation with a friend is almost completely forgotten. In this lesson, we will briefly discuss how your brain stores and retrieves memories. We will focus particularly upon the activities of your cerebral cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and cerebellum.

The human brain

Memory is your brain's ability to recall details regarding your experiences, thoughts, impressions, etc. It starts at the short-term memory ''scratch pad'' level, just a series of synapse connections (chemical on-off switches between nerve endings) that briefly store and process the thing you're experiencing. It might be a phone number or part of a sentence that you're reading. It could be the way a person's face looks, a voice sounds, or how an aroma strikes you. You have it only for a moment. Unless you do something to make the memory more permanent, the impression will disappear. The phone number is gone, you can't remember why you walked into the room, or the face is lost in the crowd.

If you really care about the thing you experienced, and perhaps put some effort into hanging onto it, your brain engages a long-term storage system, rewriting protein neuron (nerve) connections and making pathways that will allow you to retrieve it. The new piece of information becomes part of a huge web of interacting communication lines, all offering their own piece of the new puzzle. Your access to each remembered thing is based upon its relationships to other pieces of information.

Cerebral Cortex

Cerebral Cortex

A web of communication, like your own personal internet, is spread across the surface of your brain. Kind of like a wrinkled bedsheet, the cerebral cortex contains billions of interconnections that form the bulk of your awareness, memory, and ability to think, react, and create your world. Supported by thousands of miles of supporting lines in the cerebrum underneath, plus hundreds of billions of glial (support) cells, this surface of intelligence is perhaps the part of you that most defines who you are. Four regions in the cerebral cortex have been identified as performing particularly important functions:

  1. In the front (behind your forehead), short-term memory and thoughtful memories are formed, creating your sense of self.
  2. On the top (toward the back), you integrate your senses and your feeling of space and distance. In fact, one key to effective memory is thoroughly activating this section (and the next one) when you're trying to remember, involving as many senses as you can.
  3. On the sides (behind and above your ears), your brain records sensory images, adding in smell, sound, and speech elements to your memories. Complex visual images, like faces or landscapes, find their shape on the sides of your cerebral cortex. The scenes of a play, the accident out front, and the sequence of events that occurred at that outrageous Christmas party get a lot of their 'substance' from this part of your brain. Your 'declarative' memory (the memories you can actually specify and talk about) is solidified. Facts and events, 'episodic memory,' where you connect and recall autobiographical events that take place in your life, and a sense of continuity all are formed in the sides of your brain.
  4. All the way in the back, your brain processes visual images and connects them to the rest of the memories. This is why blindness sometimes occurs when you are struck in the back of the head.



Located almost exactly in the center of your head, the hippocampus functions as a transfer station for converting perceptions and thoughts into long-term stored memories. The hippocampus directs the construction of new protein communication centers, designed to store and recall rich records of the things to which you've given enough attention and energy.



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