The Race to preserve your memory

Since time immemorial, human beings have tried to understand what memory is all about and how it works and why it goes wrong at certain stages in life and people have been trying to look for wonder drugs to reverse the process. Memory is an important and essential part of what makes us truly human, and yet according to researchers it is one of the most elusive attributes so far !

Memories begin with sensory perceptions – the sight of a mountain lake, the cry of a newborn baby or the sight of a place, home or place which is close to your heart. The memories flow into nerve cells deep in the brain’s center and the brain fires up a chemical reaction that strengthens connections between neurons , searing the memory into the brain. There have been a lot of researches going on with regard to the unraveling of the mysteries of memory.

On the way are drugs that help fading minds to remember and let haunted ones to forget and move on to better memories. Many researchers jokingly term this as Viagra for the brain and are busy probing molecular intricacies of memory to create such a drug, the kind of chemical that reinvigorates an organ that is past its prime. Most drugs have little effect but a few do fit in by helping the neurons form stronger and longer lasting memories and connections. Eric Kandel a researcher of Columbia university and an elderly statesman confounded the Memory Pharmaceuticals in 1998 and shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000.

According to him - If we continue making the kind of progress we are now, we will have drugs for age-related memory loss in five or ten years.. It has become a race with many other researchers joining in to go after this elusive drug and pursuing an invention of what will be one of the next huge global pharmaceutical markets.

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Making Memories

There are several different processes and steps involved which end up making a memory pattern that gets stored. While the brain receives memory , the sensory input causes a message to travel down a neuron, to a synapse and then to the receptors. The transmitting neuron signals the molecule cyclic AMP to relay the message to the cell’s nucleus through a chemical cascade.

Now having been activated the memory molecules CREB stimulates the production of new proteins. And once the proteins go back to the synapse and strengthen the connection between the two neurons, a memory is formed.

The mind now stores information for short periods of time prior to acting on it or integrating it with other information and this process is called working memory. Working memory according to clinical experts is a central component of reasoning, comprehension and learning. Certain brain disorders such as schizophrenia are thought to involve deficits in working memory.

Short term memory is also an important aspect of the memory process and is defined as the capacity for holding a small amount of information in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time Short term memories are important in the process of decision making since some of the decisions  have to be taken on the spur of the moment without much delay .

According to scientists it may be possible to "read" a person's memories just by looking at the activity of the brain since our memories are recorded in regular patterns..

Total Recall

As I already mentioned in my introductory paragraph, if the race to produce drugs that would help age related memory loss becomes fruitful, the first users of such a medication woyuld probably be several millions of people affected with Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately the memory drugs will definitely help others who have cognitive impairment, head trauma, Down syndrome or mental retardation or even those that are recovering from severe strokes. Some new medications are even said to block unwanted memories.

But most importantly such a drug would treat people who don't have dementia but would like to reverse the frustrating forgetfulness that normally comes with age.And drug companies are actually looking at some drug that would equally help everyone , the ones with definite hearing problems and some not so and others who would make things better for themselves.

There are many criticisms against any such drug because according may thinkers a pill popped by millions of healthy people looking for a mental edge could pose serious risks. A too potent drug might wreak havoc on emotions or fill the brain with useless clutter.So according to them such a pill before being brought to the market should be free of side effects. In fact some scientists go as far as saying that if such a drug gets released it should be treated more as a life style drug!

Complexities of Memory

The whole process of combining pieces of information that are old and not so old to create something more meaningful is a crucial aspect both of learning and of consciousness and is one of the defining features of human experience which is closely associated with forming a memory pattern .Once we have reached adulthood, we have decades of intensive learning and experiences behind us, where there are many many discoveries of thousands of useful combinations of features, as well as combinations of combinations and so on...

Inside us is also present a multitude of mini strategies, that directs us as to how to focus our attention in order to maximize further learning. We have the capacity to allow our attention to roam anywhere around us , all over the world and the universe and absorb interesting new clues about any facet of our environment to compare and potentially add to our extensive memory bank. And almost all of this capacity relies on our working memory, which is nothing but a temporary storage that holds these pieces of information in order to make them available for further processing!

According to scientists what is most striking about our ability to build such a vast model is that the limit of our working memory is hardly different from that of a monkey – this given the fact that the monkey’s brain is roughly one-fifteenth the size of ours. Experiment after experiments have shown that, on an average, the human brain can hold 4 different items in its working memory, compared to 3 or 4 for the monkey which makes our brain and memory capacities almost similar.

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The process of Chunking

Chunking, in psychology, is a phenomenon whereby individuals group responses when performing a memory task

This allows us to limit our working memory, which can be compared to a kind of compression mechanism wherein we group the information in our memory bank into chunks that are more memorable and easier to process. Some memories are seemingly random bits of when they are composed and they get relegated to the back benches so to say. Chunking can also be seen as a similar mechanism when it relates to attention. Both the processes are basically concerned with compressing a vast amount data into smaller nuggets of meaning that are particularly salient and important.

Chunking is considered to be of great advantage to our attention process.. To illustrate the power of chunking , it is possible for an individual to remember and improvise on his memory capability if he looked at the task closely and made it interesting . This has been proved through several experiments, particularly in one such study , the subject became so bored with the experiment that he decided to make it interesting for himself by doing his best to greatly improve his limit — which he did by grouping memories for well-known number sequences in this particular experiment.

According to scientists this strategy works very well, and one can double ones working memory capacity . The young man in question who was the subject had, essentially, mastered exponential chunking which is useful not only in helping us excel at seemingly meaningless tasks but also is an integral part to what makes us human and thereby more superior in the way our memory works.

Memory as Reconstruction

Memory is always a reconstruction, and it can never a reflection of actual events unless it is imagination which of course has no limitations. We have to consider the fact that even direct observation of an event is never complete, it is mostly partial and selective because it is practically impossible to perceive and process the infinite and minute details of our experience in every moment.

Also, our perceptions of events are affected by our emotions , bias, mood and many other such personal factors and thus get filtered that sometimes omit or amplify certain aspects of reality as we perceived it. If experience itself was a partial process, memory is even more so since it is subject to selective processes. This is what leads to selective memory which is simply an essential part of our memory process.

Selective Memory

Selective memory is no doubt a very interesting phenomenon which I will explain later , but it can be a problem when you have to reconstruct an event and need to give as many details as possible which one is unable to do because the memory bank has no data other than what has been processed and stored. This is why, in a scene of crime or accident it is very important to get as many witness accounts as possible since each one would have observed and stored away information within his capacity. So interviewing several people and carefully checking for similarities between different accounts is very essential. Selective memory is in itself interesting since it shows the personality traits and very nature of a person.

Selective memory is very interesting as a phenomenon since it is always meaningful , there is reason why a certain glaring fact was omitted ,and why a certain the fact got was emphasized? What was exaggerated? In other words by giving an account of a totally unconnected incident people tell us about how they understand themselves and their own perception of the world and their immediate surroundings.

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Long-term memory

Apparently, Long term memory has three main functions namely storage, deletion, and retrieval. Stored information is taken from short-term memory that gets added to the memory bank after going through the selective memory process. Deleted memory is information or memories that have been put in the back shelves that have not been used for a long period of time ,that  may get lost or eroded with time. This is normally caused by a process of normal decay and interference of other memory patterns and medical factor but this is again a debatable subject.

Whether we actually ever forget anything is something that needs to be researched upon because many theories say that once stored in our memory bank the information would remain , however it might become increasingly difficult to access certain items from our memory. Memory retrieval which happens constantly with human beings occurs in different ways. We normally recall certain memories based on the information from memory bank. We recognise and note information that we have seen before and certain information acts as a trigger to certain other Many factors affect how much memory is retained in our brain and also for how long.

Memory loss - Neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and personal tragedies can cause varying degrees of memory loss. Similarly Amnesia, which is simply the loss of memory is also triggered by physical accidents that block out the pain by making the brain go blank. To get back the memory in such cases neurologists look at what is lost and try to figure out what had been there in the first place.

Some times we have such memory losses which is tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, when we know what we need to say, but cannot express it. For example – To take my own case I keep forgetting the names of people or book titles when I am trying to recall but remember at a later time, when I am not thinking about it anymore. This incredible phenomenon, according to researchers is proof of the extreme variation of memory loss.

To conclude , Human memory is much more capable than just being able to remember the names of countries in the world or cities in a given state in alphabetical order etc etc... it is what makes us individuals and is ingrained in our personality. We remember selectively of course everything that we see and how it made us feel. Memories might at best fade, but they are always there to be recalled. What really matters, is that our memories are an intrinsic part of us, and shape who we are and what we think although sometimes they get eroded with time.


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