Q: What is working memory?
A: Working memory operates in the brain’s frontal lobe. This system evaluates incoming information and keeps attention moving forward. In working memory, information is held and evaluated, and a decision is made to discard the information or save it for use at some future time.
Working memory is in operation, for example, when adding 77, 89, and 65. After totaling the first column and getting a sum of 21, you need to keep the 2 in your mind to add to the total of the second column. Working memory allows us to work faster by retaining certain information that we’ll soon need to reuse instead of taking additional time to write it down or redo a task because we forget something.
One of the major functions of working memory is to prevent useless information from encoding to long-term memory. Unnecessary information can distract our focus from what really matters to us. Our brain’s working memory screens out peripheral input, such as horns honking and dogs barking, preventing them from getting into and filling up long-term memory.
Working memory and long-term memory work together to give us the capability to prioritize input. Forgetting can be frustrating, even embarrassing, but, interestingly enough, it’s necessary. If it weren’t for forgetting, our brains would be jammed with trivia!
Q: What is long-term memory?
A: After a decision is made to keep the data, it is forwarded to different parts of the brain and sorted by smell, color, shape, and so forth. Emotion plays an important role in this process: the stronger the feelings caused by the memory, the easier it will be recalled later. Reinforcement by practicing or drilling also strengthens long-term memory.
Q: Where is memory stored?
A: Bits and pieces of a single memory are stored in different networks of neurons throughout the brain. The formation and recall of a memory is influenced by mood, surroundings, and the circumstances at the time a memory was formed or retrieved. A memory may be a little different each time we remember it.
Scientists have noted that we add interpretation during the transfer of information between working memory and long-term memory. This means we can be certain that we can’t be really certain about our memory.
Brain Memory — Can it be improved?
Q: Can we make memories stronger?
A: In a process scientists call “long-term potential-tion,” memories are encoded and strengthened (and others weakened) each and every time the repetition of a new experience causes neural firing across synapses between nerve cells.
Practice, practice, and more practice makes the bonds between surrounding cells increasingly stronger and gets more neurons involved. The result is a whole network of neurons taking part in remembering the skill, word, or event — regardless of whether we’re learning a new language, perfecting our golf game, or learning new math concepts.
Q: Does memory really get worse with age?
A: Not necessarily. The adult brain is resilient, adaptable, and ever eager to learn. David Snowden, a professor at the University of Kentucky, has observed this capability in research entitled “The Nuns of Mankato.”2 His studies have included the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a convent in Mankato, Minnesota. The nuns routinely live into their nineties, with many reaching one hundred. Their lives are mentally rigorous and their occupations meaningful.
Supporting Snowden’s observations, the PET scans done by other researchers have shown the frontal lobes of twenty-five-year olds and seventy-five-year olds equally illuminated following the same memory tests. This research has shown that intellectually challenging activities stimulate dendrite growth, which adds neural connections in the brain. The brain modifies itself to accommodate learning challenges regardless of age.
2 Snowdon, David. Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. Bantam Books. 2001.
Excerpts of the book Unlock the Enstein Inside by Dr. Ken Gibson