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Monday, September 20, 2010

Memories & Emotions

I was writing about some of my earliest memories today, and found I had almost none before I was school age, and even then they were very few and far between. Amazingly, the incidents I do remember are there in every particular. The first vivid one was when I was 4, and my father was racing up the stairs very excited - the only time I ever saw him like that. He made us all look out the front window at a new car, a Buick ‘roadster’ he had just bought. I even remember the thick yellow wooden spokes on the wheels and the rumble seat in the back! It would have been 1929, before the crash.

As I wrote in an earlier post, we only seem to remember events when our emotions are aroused, and for me that includes times when I am learning things I'm interested in. It turns out that in those cases, organs deep in the brain are affected and play a vital role in searing those lasting memories into our brain. But what’s going on with all the memories we completely lose?

Basically memories are made as signals run through our neuron brain cells and cross gaps [synapses] between the cells to make a pathway or network that you can trace at will to bring back the memory. But the brain needs energy to keep the connections in that pathway viable. Our brains actually use 25% of the total energy our bodies require, so if we kept adding to and maintaining all the pathways formed, we wouldn't have any energy left to do anything else! Evidently our brain solves this problem when we are deeply asleep. That's when the connections in new networks are weakened. If we haven't thought of an ordinary event for a day or so, we soon lose all memory of it. I can’t even remember what I had for lunch three days ago - can you?

But what if you need to remember something for a while - like the lines in a play or facts for an exam? Studies have found that it is best to revisit something we need to remember often, spacing the time between reviews over longer and longer periods – for example once an hour, then every few hours and then daily. If you naturally tend to do that anyway, you probably are confident that it works, and so you relax and do well in exams. I'm told it even works for those normally terrified in front of an audience! Rie

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