Memory mind games
Can you name the first two people to land on the moon? Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, right? What about their crewmate? Are you stumped? What if you were given his initials – M C? That’s right, it’s Michael Collins!
Memory works in strange ways: something you were sure you didn’t know can surface with the right clue. These mysteries of memory and recall are part of neuroscientist Dr Richard Roche’s research at Maynooth University. He looks at the neurocognitive mechanisms, or pathways in the mind, that help us form new memories.
These neural pathways can explain why some things are stored in our short-term memory but never make it to long-term memory.
Maximise your memory
“There are a couple of ways that a short-term memory can become a long-term one,” explains Roche. “If you want to remember your new mobile number, the best tactic is to repeat it over and over.”
Another way to remember something is to attach the new information to something you already know. When studying, it is useful to consciously connect a new fact (for example, the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889) to one you already know (the Eiffel Tower is in Paris), explains Roche.
“This idea of embedding new experiences into existing ones is a way to ensure you remember them for much longer,” says Roche, adding that cramming for exams is only a short term solution.
“If you’re cramming, you might remember it for a day or two. If you learn a bit every day for a few weeks, you’ll have a much better chance of retaining information for longer,” he advises.
Neuroscience and new memories
Over the past 60 years, neuroscience has been making interesting discoveries about memory, says Roche. One famous example is that of Henry Molaison.
In 1953, aged 27, he had a part of his brain known as the hippocampus removed to prevent seizures.
Molaison’s seizures stopped, but he stopped forming new memories. He remembered his life up until that day but could not store new memories.
“Neuroscientists learned a lot from this. He couldn’t remember new facts but he could remember new motor skills – for example, how to drive,” explains Roche. “Although he could learn new motor skills, he had no memory of having learned them.”
So the hippocampus helps new short-term memories become long-term ones – when it was removed, nothing transferred over.
It also showed scientists that there were different categories of memory, says Roche. Memory of experiences (or episodic memory) is processed differently than procedural memory (how our brain records new skills).
That’s why you might forget your mother’s birthday but you’ll never forget how to ride a bike.
Follow Dr Roche on Twitter at @RRocheNeuro.