We are all aware of short and long-term memory classification. Some would find convenient to think of short and long-term memory in computer components’ terminology: short-term memory is like a RAM (random accessed memory) and long-term memory is like computer’s Hard drive. For example, my Macbook contains 16GB of RAM and a hard drive of 500 GB. Perhaps computers were created with the notion to reflect what we knew of how brains function, but do brains actually work this way?

The process of short memory transforming into the long-term memory is called consolidation. Initially memories are fragile, but with time and repetition become more durable. What we usually don’t know is that the location of memory is probably the same, just it could take even 10 years for the memory to settle down so that to be recalled without a help of a particular brain region called hippocampus (RAM), which is responsible for short-term memories and acts like an intermediary on the way to cortex (hard drive), where all the memories are stored.

In one experiment an individual with removed hippocampus could not remember anything that is within 10 years and could remember normally what dates at least 11 years ago.

The interesting part is that when these long-term memories are resurrected to the awareness, for instance, friends meet up to discuss childhood memories, long-term memories are mentally reprocessed again, thus become again unstable, ready (or forced) to change the shape.

Researchers say that memory works in two ways – as a library with organized memory shelves or as a detective scene, where only fragmented memories exist and we, as detectives, based on inference, guesswork and disturbingly other unrelated memories reconstruct of what was actually stored. The brain constantly receives new information inputs, connecting new information to existing, thus recreating the original memories for a new storage.

In one interesting study psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Offer interviewed 73 high school freshmen of age 12 and did the same interviews with the same people at the age 48, thus 36 years later. He found some interesting variations in the memories:

  • 60% recalled parental encouragement to be active in sports at age 12 comparing to 40% recalling at age 48
  • 70% recalled religion was helpful comparing to 25% later
  • 90% recalled being physically punished by parents comparing to 30% later
  • 77% “easy to get date” became 65% later
  • 15% endorsed sex comparing to 44% later

Naturally we want to question how to have memories intact as they were, not mixing up with the new information. We definitely do not want memory distortions and confusions. It is suggested that (1) repeating, (2) giving a proper spacing to the repetition and (3) doing it in the most vivid way (for instance, magnified and hyperbolised) works best. Since research shows that people remember better if they learn in intervals, perhaps it is better to distribute the repetitions rather than devote a single time for the same number of repetitions.