Memory is the mental capacity to store and retrieve stored experiences. It is a central part of the human capacity because it is vital to the self-identity of a person. All animals have some kind of memory, but in humans it is unique. Memory is part of the human capacity to be transcendent in thought. Humans can think of the past, the immediate present and then project thoughts into future possibilities. Memory makes it possible for planning to take place. Without memory organisms can only react to present events in their immediate environment.
Memory is not just storing information for retrieval. It is also an intimate part of the learning process. Learning occurs as learners remember ideas, experiences, or other lessons. These learning experiences are not just stored for retrieval; they also transform the learner into a different person than they would be without the learned experience. For example, learning a foreign language or leaning a skill enlarges the capacity of the person, yet it would be impossible to accomplish these tasks without memory.
The brain is the center of memories. It however, receives information about experiences in a somewhat random manner. The data of life comes as a stream of information that is not very useful unless it is organized into memories. These are patters of information that are sorted by the brain into retrieval locations in the brain. Every person has his or her own way of sorting experiences into memories. The more organized the sorting is into patterns the more effectively the person will be able to recall the information upon demand.
Physical learning is accomplished by the body. It can be trained to repeat an almost endless number of physical actions that can be put to use in play or work. Athletes, soldier, actors, and others engage in repetition of physical actions in order to train the body for the performance of certain tasks. Golfers call the time on the practice tee “grooving their swing.” The expression “practice makes perfect” really means that the brain remembers what the body has done repeatedly even if the physical actions has not been engaged in for some time.
Mental memories are those connected with learning ideas or abstract concepts. Counting is a mental activity that is refined into a considerable skill. Concrete experiences of things such as a sheep can be counted when seen as a collection called a flock or a very large flock in Australia called a mob of sheep. The counting is of specific physical things; however, abstraction, which involves grouping things into physical categories (sheep) of abstract categories (flocks, sheep industry) used memories of ideas of perception to create ideas of abstraction. The mind can draw up and reassemble memories in dramatic ways.
It is possible to combine both mental and physical memories and then to employ them in some task. For example an orator may memorize a speech, a singer the lyrics of a song, or an actor memorize their lines. These may not only require physical expression, but emotional expression as well. Additionally, the brain can remember emotions.
The brain also stores memories of emotional experiences. The basic emotions—love, joy, anger, fear, and grief—are very important parts of the memories of people. The emotions also have variation that can make the emotional life of people from very shallow to very rich. Those with a low emotional reaction level will miss much of the meaning of life. Emotional complexities such as the perversions of love or anger into envy or hatred can damage the capacity of the personality to remember positive emotions. Much of the work of psychiatrists involves sorting out the emotions of people who have manifested their disorganized emotions into disruptive behaviors.
For example leaning to love is a part of developing a wholesome personality. However, those who greedily feed upon receiving love and lack the capacity to return in are likely to have emotional memories that are disorganized. Or a severe fright such as an assault or rape or a violent action occurring in the presence of someone may cause an emotional trauma. The trauma may be so severe that it inhibits them from acting in a normal manner. In effect the emotions of the event are retained but they are too painful to be remembered. The result may be any of a number of possible emotional conditions one of which is amnesia.
Forgetting is also a part of memory. Without the capacity of the brain to abandon memories it would not be possible to undo mistakes easily. In addition the mind would be cluttered with a great deal of useless transitory material. However, forgetting is also often more than an inconvenience. It can be a major problem for the healthy or for the ill. It would not be easy to discard the emotional pain associated with many hurtful experiences. It is also useful to not remember severe traumas caused by an accident and the surgery that followed.
Memory problems identified as amnesia are extremely important. The amnesia victim is unable to remember information that identifies him or her. Cases of recovered memory after years of suffering from amnesia have brought the restored memory to life again but their only personal family situation may have radically changes.
Damage to the brain can also cause memory loss. The damage may be due to an injury from a blow to the head or it may be due to an illness. Stroke and tumors cause injuries to the brain and interfere with memory.
Diseases such as malaria have organisms that injury the brain and can significant damage to the memory even if the malaria victim survives. On a global basis the neurological damage done to millions is a huge public health problem. It is being addressed by many international actors, but it is a challenging problem because the malarial organism keeps developing resistance to malarial drugs.
Diabetics with blood sugars out of control can be affected by memory losses. These are usually in the short term.
Aging also affects the memory in a variety of ways. The weakening of the circulatory system and the reduced oxygen flow can affect memories. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that eventually leads to progressive cognitive deterioration of the brain and therefore of memories. Dementia is common until the advent of death.
Forgetting can be measured by using recognition and recall tests. Recall is the reproduction of material learned earlier. Students taking a test over an historical era are engaged in recall. Recognition is tested by presenting a stimulus and then if it is one that was learned earlier. There are two major theories of forgetting—decay and interference. The trace-decay theory says that learned material leaves a trace on the brain which will ultimate fade away if not used repeatedly. The interference theory asserts that everything ever learned will state in the mind unless interfered with by something. One type of interference is called retroactive inhibition and a second type is called proactive inhibition. The latter type of interference can occur if a list of state capitals is learned and then a second list of national capitals is learned. The second list can degrade the memory of the first list.
Historically the study of memory was a part of philosophy. At first it was a part of epistemology where it dealt with the questions of knowledge, such as “how do we know.” It was also a part of metaphysical where the question of the nature of the abstract mind or soul was considered. Or it was considered as a part of the rational “mind” that ordered the universe. However, the study of the human personality in its cognitive and emotive capacities became the science of psychology in the 19th century. Like all sciences it then dropped out of philosophy and most psychologists then became experimentally focused. Today the study of memory is the focus of neuroscience and cognitive psychology.
Memory is closely associated with intelligence. There are a variety of definitions of intelligence. None has universal acceptance. But the capacity to learn quickly and to remember long after is a measure of how swiftly the brain works and now well it retains information. Those who learning is denoted as quickly with an excellent memory are assigned an intelligence quotient (IQ) that is high. Others who do not learn quickly or remember well are assigned a low IQ. Neither is a measure of moral worth, although many people make the mistake of believing or acting as if IQ is a measure of personal value.
There are six factors that contribute to a good memory. These factors are association, visualization, concentration, repetitions, intensity of impressions, and priority of impressions.
Association is the joining together of ideas. Two ideas may not be naturally connected, but if joined then combine to form a new idea. The combination of chocolate and peanuts or peanut butter is the combination of two different foods, which are agreeable together in the taste experiences of many people. Association is used as a mnemonic device when similar more easily remembered things serve as a stimulant to recall information. The association of a string tied around a finger as a memory device is a common memory trick.
Visualization is the capacity of the mind to form a mental picture for something that a person wishes to remember. By creating a strong, intense picture the information can be recalled. In order to visualize concentration is also necessary. Concentration is simply attending to something with the intention to remember it. Leaning to concentrate forces the mind to pay attention to what it wants to remember.
Repetition is the fourth factor in memory. Repetition is duplicating the words, sounds, smells, ideas or other objects that are being remembered. The duplication is done so frequently that the mind will be able to store the memories in an orderly fashion so that recall of the information is easily accomplished.
The fifth factor in memory improvement is intensity of impression. The more exciting or the more dramatic or violent or thrilling is the matter to be remembered the easier it is to recall. The intensity adds to the capacity to remember.
Closely associated with the intensity of the impression to be remembered is the last factor in memory improvement, priority of impressions. The tendency of people is to remember the things that are seen first. Common folk sayings about first impressions being the most lasting ones point to this memory factor.
Many mnemonic strategies used these memory factors to help individuals remember information accurately and efficiently. Widely used mnemonic devices include the Acronyms and First-letter Method, the Keyword Method, the Pegword Method, the Method of Loci and the Face-Name Mnemonic.
Motivation is also an important factor in memory. The drive to learn in order to achieve some purpose can be a powerful stimulant to the concentration and thus an aid to the memory. According to Sigmund Freud it is a factor in forgetting as well.
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