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What is Memory - How Does Memory Work ?  

What is Memory ?

Memory is the power of the brain to recall any information that has been stored in it. It is the power to remember something that has been learnt or experienced. Memory is important because if there was no memory, there would be no learning. We will forget things soon after learning them. We will not be able to recall any experience either.

The efficiency of the recall system is what makes your memory good or bad. As such, there is nothing like good memory and bad memory. It is just the matter of training your brain to recall efficiently. Remembering is a process that must be learned, just like walking, talking, eating, differentiating colors, distinguishing sounds and telling time. You learned these things when you were a child and now you can perform them without effort, without even being conscious of the mental processes involved. You can learn the process of using your memory just as thoroughly, and when you do, you will have hundred times more power of knowledge and experience than what you have now.

Anyone can hone up the memory by training it. In order to make decisions and solve problems, one needs to refer to previous experiences. To refer to the previous experiences, we must remember them. No one really likes to waste time on re-learning. Therefore, it is imperative to improve our memory. Ever since the time of Cicero, men have been developing techniques to improve memory. The fundamentals remain the same; only the modifications keep pace with the changing times.

How Does Memory Work ?  

Psychologists have classified the stages of memory process into three main categories. They call them - sensory memory, short­term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory memory is a very fleeting type of memory, which works only as long as the experience is present. For instance, if you were looking at a bird, you would remember it only as long as it is in front of you. The moment it flies away, you would not be able to remember what it looked like unless you have filed the information away into your short-term memory. In effect, sensory memory holds as long as your senses are experiencing a thing. Whether it is the feel of an object, smell or the sensation of anything, it is all there in the sensory memory for a very brief period while your sense is active.

Short-term memory, on the other hand, can help you recall for a little longer; in fact, as long as you keep thinking about it. Whether it is the telephone number that you have been repeating constantly till you write it down, or the image of the bird, it will remain available as long as you actively think about it. Otherwise, it will be erased within a span of about 20 seconds. To remember, the brain has to transfer it into the long-term memory bracket.

How does the long-term memory work? It is the mainstay of the memory system and can hold unlimited amount of information, which can range from a few minutes old to life-time period. Long­term memory is like a huge hard disk of a giant computer where unlimited information can be stored for a lifetime. It is this memory that we have to hone, polish and activate.

All this sounds pretty technical and complicated but just think of it in terms of storage tricks. Take the example of an ice­cream. You can't keep the ice-cream from melting beyond a few minutes, if you do not keep it in the fridge. Sensory memory is like the ice-cream kept outside. If you keep the ice-cream in the fridge, it will remain in the semi-formed state and that is the short-term memory. Now, put the ice-cream in the freezer and it will harden to a large extent. Even if you take it out and keep it outside, it will take some time to melt. This is the long-term memory. Quite simple, isn't it?

The Brain and Memory Connection

No one is born with a poor memory. As human beings, we have been gifted with an amazingly powerful brain. And God has not been partial to anyone in making this extraordinary gift. We, however, often make fun of the forgetful people or people with poor memory and tease them by saying - "You must have been standing at the end of the queue when God was doling out the grey matter. "

It is worthwhile to learn about the fantastic organ called brain, which governs most of our actions as well as thinking. It is like the master controller, rather like the remote control that you use to surf channels on the television. The brain is constantly bombarded with information, which is relayed through all our senses. Just imagine the enonnous task it has in dealing with all this information, which is constantly being passed on to it.

How Does it Handle all the Traffic of Information?

The amount of information that floods in the brain is staggering. The brain has an unenviable job of sifting out the unimportant bits and selecting the important matters that need to be stored. Memory is just one of the facets of the multifarious functions of the brain.

Since this book deals with memory, we will only discuss that facet of the brain function. The human brain is a complex and highly developed organ. It consists of billions of cells that are constantly analyzing, storing and retrieving information. No computer can match the efficient and organized functioning of a healthy brain. An interesting fact about the brain is that although it is just 2 percent of the total body weight, it uses up about 20 percent of the oxygen used by the entire body, when it is at rest. The brain cannot go without oxygen for more than 3-5 minutes without causing serious damage to it.

The most striking feature of the brain is the backup system. It stores each memory in a different slot. The memory system works in un amazing manner. Sometimes you will find that a certain odour brings back memories of your childhood or a visit to a hill station triggers a memory of a childhood vacation in another hill station. At other times, you may spend hours trying to recall someone's name without any success, only to remember the name suddenly when you are talking to someone or doing something else.

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