The stimulus-driven learning process
We forge long-term memories, and learn nearly everything we retain by strengthening neural connections through repetition, and sometimes trauma or reward. Certain events can imprint permanent memories, simply by their magnitude, and their effects upon our lives and our emotions. Events such as Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President Kennedy, and the horror of 9/11 evoke strong associations, and any of us who lived through them remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about them. Few of us, however, could recall what we did on the preceding day. We are all familiar with that kind of memory imprinting and recall, but what about the normal, everyday kinds of things we try to remember – and sometimes fail. How does this neuroplasticity really work, and, most importantly, do we have any control over it?
The first step in memory formation is called “encoding,” which is a biological process, rooted in the senses, that begins with perception. As an example, think of meeting your first “crush.” When you met him or her, your visual system registered things like their physical appearance, the color of their eyes, the tilt of their head, and their smile. Your auditory system may have recorded the sound of their laughter. You may have experienced the smell of their after-shave or perfume. You may have even felt the touch of their hand upon your arm. These separate sensations traveled along neural pathways from different regions to a portion of your brain stem called the hippocampus, where they were integrated, as they occurred, and became one single experience – your experience of that specific person.
Imaging studies indicate that the hippocampus, along with another part of our brain, called the frontal cortex is responsible for analyzing these various sensory inputs and deciding if they’re worth remembering or not. If they are, they become part of our long-term memory. If not, they stay in short-term memory for a brief time, and are then forgotten. Do we have any control over what information is retained in long-term memory? Yes, we absolutely do, there are a couple of tools we can use to train our minds to commit information to long-term memory, one is repetition, and the other is mindfulness.Continue reading