What was that thing you said about memory?

I recently read the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by best-selling author and Professor of Neurology; Oliver Sacks. As amusing as the title may be, this collection of case studies details some of the most interesting, bizarre and sometimes perilous afflictions of the brain. Indeed, there was a man who mistook his wife for a hat, and this book goes on to highlight that our experience of the world is all but a product of what our brain has put conjured from our environment. If our brain gets it wrong, then the consequences can be quite surprising… like mistaking your wife for a hat!

One story which took my interest was that of an elderly woman who was [eventually] diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. The temporal lobe of the brain is mainly responsible for the organisation of sensory input, and seizures originating here can cause the sufferer to experience a whole range of feelings, emotions, thoughts or experiences.  In the case of this woman, her sudden onset of seizures caused her to hear music which she had not heard since her childhood, growing up in Ireland. As if being played from a record player pressed up against her ear, she could hear music with note-for-note precision. Obviously there was no real music playing so the sounds were nothing more than auditory hallucinations, not uncommon with such a neurological disorder.

What I find particularly interesting with this story is that despite having not heard this music for many many years (and also having been somewhat deaf), this lady’s brain was able to play it to her as if from a radio. I am sure we can all agree that even with our favourite songs, we would struggle to remember every note. This got me thinking about memory and the apparently endless capacity of it. It seems plausible from instances like the one described above that our brain is capable of recording everything that we have ever experienced.


Many studies on memory have used analogies to describe the way in which it functions; such as being similar to that of a computer’s memory (encode, store and retrieve). Within this framework it would be difficult to describe such childhood reminiscence as a memory – most of us would never suffer with the same neurological affliction and thus would never achieve the resulting retrieval. So, if a memory is irretrievable, is it no longer a memory?

Studies on memory have found that it is possible for us to create memories of events that never actually happened. In one study, participants were presented with four events from their childhood that their relatives had described. Three of the events were real, and the fourth was a fake. Participants were asked to recall as much about the events as possible, several times over the course of a week and at the end of the week they were told that one of the events was fake. 25% incorrectly identified the fake event, revealing the frailties of retrieval, and of our computer memory analogy.

That is not to say that this analogy is completely flawed. In fact, it is probably the leading platform for researchers to conduct studies upon. As a result, we now have many wonderful ways to ‘enhance’ memory – and by ‘enhance’, I simply mean; learn ways to encode, store and retrieve effectively and efficiently. All you have to do is search ‘How to remember things’ on Google to find over 300 million hits as to how we can do just that. All I am saying is that our computer memory analogy is perhaps not reflective of the entire picture.

ImageWhen we think of storage, we might think of a cardboard box or a designated area for things to be held until we need them again. So when considering memory in this way, you will be forgiven for thinking that our brain has a special area just for memories. Research has shown us that there are indeed areas of the brain specifically involved in the learning process and the memory needed for learning. Additionally, research has also shown us that when it comes to retrieving memories, it seems that the brain makes use of a ‘facilitator’ of sorts – not necessarily needed to maintain the memory, but certainly to help locate it. The problem, however, comes in trying to understand the actual memory itself.

Studies looking at the regenerative abilities of the Planarian Flatworm have yielded interesting findings which have potential implications on our understanding of memory. After removing the entire head of these worms and patiently waiting for them to grow back, scientists have found that old memories seem to come back too! Whilst it would be pretty difficult for me to try and compare the neural system of a flatworm to that of a human, what is interesting is that flatworms (like humans) have centralised brains in the head area. So when removing the head, it would be reasonable to assume that memories go with it… so how do they end up back in the host when its head grows back? This certainly opens up for the discussion of a potential non-static memory.

There is a lot about memory that is yet to be understood or that is simply misunderstood. I could write all day and all night about it and still conclude without an answer. But as a nice ending point I wanted to talk about something that I am certain we have all experienced.

You hear a song on the radio and make a mental note of the name, or you come up with an idea so brilliant that you think you could never forget it. You may even be aware that your memory is sometimes a touch temperamental and so consciously think to yourself “I will definitely remember this time; this is so brilliant that I couldn’t possibly forget”. Then just three minutes later you’re kicking yourself for apparently not taking your own advice.

We all do it, and this foresight bias gives us an unfounded overconfidence that we will perform better at something that we never seem to successfully accomplish. I have two solutions for this little memory weak-point. The first is to master some of the many suggestions posted all over the internet which promise to improve your memory in new and revolutionary ways. The second solution – and my personal favourite; write it down.



Filed under Memory

2 responses to “What was that thing you said about memory?

  1. Esther Borrett

    Keep up the good work. I always recommend Sachs as an introduction to memory a well written and insightful look at memory problems.

    • Thank you Esther! The Sachs book is really good, and you’re right – it is a really nice introduction. I hope that teaching is still going well. For anyone that may happen to see this comment, Esther was the person that introduced me to Psychology.

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