In detail

How does memory work?

How does memory work?

Memory is described as the mental capacity or power that allows to retain and remember, through unconscious associative processes, sensations, impressions, ideas and concepts previously experienced, as well as all the information that has been consciously learned. The human brain has various types of memory. One is short-term memory, which allows only certain information to be retained for a few seconds, such as a telephone number. Another is the so-called long-term memory that serves to preserve information for minutes, hours, weeks or even years.

Twotypes of memory they are semantics and episodic

The semantic memory save specific data, as the capital of France is Paris, 2 × 2 is 4, etc. While the episodic memory it preserves the memories of events lived directly by us and relates them to various elements. The first keeps conscious information about what we want to remember. The second makes us retain things without us noticing, such as the details of a landscape to which we have not paid special attention, or announcements without much interest and that without realizing it then we are able to remember.

There is also another type of memory called procedural, which is what allows us to do things after having learned them, without constantly having to keep our attention. A good example of this is driving a car or cycling. Once we have learned and internalized the technique, we do it with almost no thought in all our movements. We do these activities so unconsciously that we may be thinking about other things or talking, because they no longer require our permanent attention.

Human memory actually has a much higher capacity than that of the most powerful computer

It can contain ten billion bits (information units).

But the capacity of human memory is not able to explain everything, because we are also able to recognize an object, even if it is on its side, face down or in a normal position. For example, we know that a glass is a glass, even if it is horizontal or slightly clogged. And even more, we know that an object was a glass if we found a fragment large enough after it was broken. All this occurs in our brain without it being logical that our memory contains information about all possible positions of a glass and other objects. Human memory has the extraordinary ability to obtain information without having explicitly acquired it, but by making quick, almost immediate deductions. We know how to recognize a tree without ever seeing that specific species, we don't need to have seen all the trees in the world to identify it as such.

How can human memory contain so much information and know how to recover it inside our brain? The answer to this question has been a research path for many scientists throughout history. It seems that memories can be recovered thanks to the electrical excitation of certain neurons. The activation of a specific group of these allows to recover a memory. And the transmission of electrical signals through the neurons, is in turn caused by chemical substances called neurotransmitters. Therefore, memory is based on chemistry.

The process by which human memory is capable of storing new information seems to be that of the plasticity of synapses or neuronal contacts. The human brain is not a network of cables already formed, but communications and the new circuits between neurons are created as we learn and remember new vital situations and concrete data.

Memories are registered in our brain thanks to the new circuits created. The more different details we have of an image and its surroundings, the easier it will be for us, just by seeing a part, to remember the whole set. There is no circuit activated for each memory, but a set of circuits that, activated at the same time, provide the memory.

There are memorial techniques in which, the association of visual or auditory stimuli help us recover information. Remembering a list of written words would be easier if, in addition to reading it, someone repeated it to us aloud, and even more so if we also wrote them, since a motor activity is added here that reinforces this association. This is why context is very important in the recovery of memories. There are memories that are easier to evoke when we are in the original context where they were acquired, for example, childhood memories of a place where we went on vacation, come to mind much clearer when we return to that place and see We hear and feel the smells of that place. It is a clear example of associative memory.

Personal capabilities can be enhanced, there are memorization techniques such as mnemonic words composed of the first syllable of the names to remember. Others exploit the role of the environment or different stimuli (visual, auditory, olfactory ...) to enhance memory. Although the simple memorization of word lists only allows to exercise a specific type of memory.

Human memory has a complex structure, it is a process that occurs in different places of the brain, since to memorize various functions are involved, such as visual, auditory identification, classification of what we see, etc. Memory, like other mental abilities, can be enhanced by training personal, as in physical and manual skills. On numerous occasions we do it almost without realizing it, with studies hobbies or hobbies. The important thing is to stay active in every way throughout our lives, so that our capacities instead of decreasing continue to grow over the years.


Mosby Dictionary of Medicine and Health Sciences. (1998). Harcourt Brace
Duran, J. (1996): The polyhedral brain. Barcelona. Ed. Jokes.