Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long-Term Memories: What You Didn't Realize You Knew

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

This week, when I was driving home after running some errands, a song came on the radio that I hadn’t heard in years. Thanks to Sirius XM, I immediately knew the song was “I Miss You” by Blink-182. This song was released in 2004. I thought, ‘Wow! I remember this song! I liked this song when it came out. I haven’t heard this song in a long time!’ When the chorus started, I immediately started singing along, and I remembered all the words without trying to remember them (“Don’t waste your time on me, you’re already a voice inside my head…”). The words flowed out of my mouth without any conscious effort whatsoever.

I’m sure this sort of instant memory recall has happened to you. I love being able to remember something that I didn’t even know I had known…or even didn’t know I had…forgotten?

Literally a couple of days before hearing that song, I was asked to remember someone’s name—a person I had both met in person and e-mailed back and forth about a year ago—and I could not for the life of me remember.  I wonder why sometimes you can remember things you have forgotten without trying to remember them, but other times you try so hard to remember things you know you’ve forgotten, to no avail?

I started doing a little online research about the human memory. A Scientific American article by Paul Reber from 2010 describes the capacity of our memories (link #1 below). In a nutshell, Reber explains that because each of the billion neurons in the brain can not only make a thousand connections to other neurons but also combine to help with many memories at a time (exponentially increasing potential memory space), our brains could store the equivalent of 3 million hours of TV shows (if our brains worked like a PVR/DVR). We have all of this “hard drive” space readily available, but we can’t remember where we left our keys???

What intrigues me even more than the concept of remembering is the concept of forgetting. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “forget” as “unable to recall.” Oxford Dictionaries online defines “forget” as “to fail to remember.”

According to those definitions, I wonder if I had actually forgotten that Blink-182 song. I wasn’t trying and failing to recall it. I wasn’t even aware that it was in my memory.

Do you have to remember that you knew something in order to know you’ve forgotten it?

There are probably thousands upon thousands of memories stored in your long-term memory, sitting atop a high, dusty shelf at the back of a closet—that you don’t even realize are there. Just because you are unable to recall a song, a person’s name, a childhood experience or what you did last Saturday night doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not there, in your memory. It's just a matter of access.

The question I have about forgetting is this:

Have you really forgotten something if you can’t consciously remember it, or you don’t think about it anymore, or is it still possible to retrieve a memory under the right circumstances, even if you can’t recall it by trying? Can anything be truly forgotten? How would we ever know?

Let me tell you the significance of these questions:

Of all the memories you don’t realize are stored in your long-term memory bank, you may only retrieve some, and you will only get to them if you happen to experience something that allows you to think along a certain path of interconnected neurons to access the memory. The path across synapses to a memory may be impossible to travel unless you stumble upon a memory trigger. Does this mean that some of what we happen to remember is determined by our experiences, our decisions and the uncontrollable things that happen to us? Is it that…random?

We probably have thousands upon thousands of memories stored away, but we may only happen upon a small percentage of them. Furthermore, the fact that we happen to stumble upon certain memories and not others may be determined by the things we just so happen to experience. This may not be a big deal in some cases (like remembering a certain song) but in other cases, remembering something may have greater significance (like remembering a conversation you had with someone, and what the other person told you).

Back to my story: If I had been listening to a different radio station, I wouldn’t have heard that Blink-182 song. Perhaps I might have heard it elsewhere at a different time, but perhaps different things would have been on my mind at the time, so I wouldn’t have been thinking about the recollection of memories, and it wouldn’t have been an inspiration for a blog post.

As it happened, I heard the song, and I was inspired, so I’m writing about remembering and forgetting, and you are just happening to read it.


1 comment:

  1. This was very interesting to read Christina. It reminded me of psychology and my prof said that the memories if they are stored in short term, some of them will be forgotten as you said, but the ones we remember over and over agan and use frequently are placed into our long term which is like the storage bank for our memories. The process to retrieve them usually begins with a trigger and some of them are too hard to retrieve because it takes a great effort (some of them are just lost into the abyss of wherever our deleted thoughts go.. so it got me thinking do we suconsciously place certain memories away (ones that mean the most to us) or are they simply hidden then revealed to us with help from the Lord when it is time? Just a thought I suppose..