The more you understand how your memory works, the better you’ll be able to improve it. In this article, we will explore how memory works and what part of the brain controls memory.
How does memory work?
Before we begin delving into the neural geography of memory, it is important to fully answer the question, how does memory work?
While we generally use the analogy of accessing memories by sorting through a type of ‘mental filing cabinet,’ the actual mechanics of memory are far more dynamic. A better analogy would be plugging your mind into a sort of mental Ethernet cable — and the strength of the network connection is based on how the event was uploaded into the brain.
Hmm, sounds like some pretty tricky stuff, right? Well, let’s dive in.
The process of memory consolidation
Memory consolidation is the brain’s ability to process events and turn them into memories.
When certain neurotransmitters are present in the brain, they enable the nerve cells (neurons) to communicate with one another via synaptic connections. Once two neurons fire together more than once, they are more likely to fire together again (it’s like they are friends). Once a message has been thoroughly communicated, you have memory consolidation.
The neuroscience of memory recall
So, how do you fine-tune and upgrade that mental Ethernet connection to have a stronger memory recall? By building strong neural pathways.
Basically, to have a powerful memory recall means to have strong synaptic connections — the better your cells are able to communicate with each other, the more quickly and accurately you will be able to access memories. You can strengthen these synaptic connections by sending the signal more frequently and having the neurons communicate more often. This paves a strong and clear neural pathway — it’s like when a hiking path is more traveled, it’s easier to walk along.
The brain works this way because it is neuroplastic, meaning that it is constantly changing shape and form to suit your present needs. For instance, do you really need to remember all of the kids’ name you went to elementary school with? Since you don’t, your brain works in this handy use it or lose it fashion. Thanks to this process of neuroplasticity, your brain is able to constantly take in new information and sharply perform the needs of now.
What part of the brain controls memory?
So, now you may be wondering, what part of the brain controls memory?
The answer to this question may be a bit more complex than you think. The truth is, there is no one memory part of the brain. In fact, different memories are stored in different places all over the brain…
Where are memories stored in the brain?
Brain memory is a complex topic, but we will do our best to break down where memories are stored in the brain by first focusing on two main different types of memory: implicit memory and explicit memory.
So, what part of the brain controls memory? All of it’s different, interconnected regions work together as the “memory part of the brain.” They each play their unique role in both memory consolidation and memory recall.
In order to fully define explicit memory, we must break it down into two parts: episodic and semantic:
- Episodic explicit memories are based off real-life events that have happened to you.
- Semantic explicit memories are a series of general facts and information.
Once you can define explicit memory, you can begin to learn the areas of the brain involved in forming it. There are three brain areas involved: the amygdala, hippocampus, and neocortex.
The amygdala is defined by its almond shape, it’s location in the temporal lobe, and it’s ability to attach emotional significance to particular memories.
Emotions play a huge role in our memory processes. This becomes evident when you realize how emotional all of your strongest memories are. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you first heard about 9/11? Most people do; even if they were only 8 years old at the time. This is because it was a deeply emotional experience. In a lighter example, we all generally remember the distinct details of our first kiss (awww).
The amygdala is especially good at strengthening memories that are related to fear — scientists hypothesize that this is actually a very useful survival gift from the brain. Remember how sick you got from eating those berries? Your brain will make sure you don’t ever eat those poisonous berries again.
The hippocampus is located deep within our brain’s medial temporal lobe and is responsible for helping to create explicit memories. This section of the brain’s job is to transfer short-term memory into long-term memory; however, the memories are not stored here permanently. The hippocampus keeps up with retaining the cornucopia of memories within it by constantly growing new neurons. Read our more in-depth article to learn How To Memorize Efficiently And Improve Your Short Term Memory
The neocortex is often distinguished by its wrinkled appearance. It’s the biggest part of the cerebral cortex, yet is a simple sheet of neural tissue that form outside of the brain.
After information is transferred from short-term memory to long-term memory in the hippocampus, it moves into the neocortex to be stored permanently. Research suggests that this process takes place while we sleep. That’s probably why sleep is so important while studying and retaining information.
The neocortex is also involved in the processes of spatial reasoning, language, generation of motor skills, and sensory perception.
Implicit memories are memories that we tap into without being consciously aware of the past experience we are drawing them from. For example, muscle memory — we don’t have to think about the events that caused our brain to tell our muscles how to move. It all happens unconsciously.
There are two areas of the brain working to maintain our implicit memories: the basal ganglia and the cerebellum.
The basal ganglia are structures that live deep within the brain. Particularly, they help us with coordinating sequences of motor activity. We use these sequences during activities such as dancing, playing an instrument, and playing soccer.
These structures are also involved in processes such as habit formation (which makes sense when you think about how muscle-memory seems like a habit), movement, learning, emotion, and processing rewards.
The cerebellum is located at the base of the brain, all the way in the back. As opposed to general motor control, the cerebellum focuses on fine motor control — the type that helps us with detailed activity, such as learning how to hold a bow just a slight degree higher to hit the target.
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What part of the brain controls memory? All of the parts! Do you have any cool tricks for explaining how memory works? Please share with us in the comment section below; the more perspectives, the better!