Neuroscientists studying memory in animals (such as rats and monkeys) have discovered that it’s not just people who experience infantile amnesia. It seems to be common to animals whose brains, like ours, keep developing after they’re born.
Have you ever wondered why you can’t remember being a baby? Or why you can easily remember all the words to a song you learnt as a teenager—even if that was 20 (or more) years ago?
The answers to these questions may lie in the way our memory system develops as we grow from a baby to a teenager and into early adulthood. Our brain is not fully developed when we are born—it continues to grow and change during this important period of our lives.
And, as our brain develops, so does our memory. Let’s wander down memory lane and take a look.
Memory isn’t a video camera
Many of us think of our memory as being a bit like a recording device—a video camera, say. We imagine it faithfully recording events in detail which we can, at some later stage, retrieve by simply pressing the ‘play’ button.
But this video-camera idea of memories isn’t really accurate. That’s because memories aren’t just static recordings which are ‘there’ to be accessed. Rather, memories are dynamic—they’re always changing.
They can become stronger or weaker over time. They can become distorted, and they can be manipulated. What we remember and how we remember it depends on when we do the remembering, and what meaning and experience we bring to that memory. In fact, every time we remember something, we alter that memory a little bit.
Memories are made when neurons fire
Neurons are nerve cells which send electrochemical signals to each other. As a person processes an event, neurons in the brain pass information through synapses (tiny gaps between neurons). This invites surrounding neurons to start firing, creating a network of connections of various strengths.
It’s this persistent change in the strength and pattern of connections that is a ‘memory’.
There are different kinds of memories?
There are a number of different kinds of memory. It can be explicit (consciously remembered) or implicit (unconscious). Good at remembering facts and figures? That’s what’s known as your semantic memory.
Able to thrash your partner at Pacman without even thinking, even though you haven’t played for years? You can thank your procedural memory, which is all about learned motor skills.
Memories are stored in different, interconnected parts of the brainMemories aren’t just stored in just one place in the brain. Rather, different (interconnected) parts of the brain specialize in different kinds of memories.
For example, an area of the brain called the hippocampus is important for storing memories of particular things that happened in your life, known as episodic memories.