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The memory process in the human brain is very complex. No computer has come close to the capacity of the human brain as of yet. However, it is only a matter of time before computers will have overcome the human brain's power with the fusion of nanotechnology and biotech resources, expected within the next 20-30 years.

Scientists have been discovering and uncovering each part of the human memory system in order to help better understand how we encode our memories, and retrieve them as well. Understanding these memory processes can help parents to improve the prospect of a higher education for their children early in life, and help people improve the quality of their memory and recollection processes.

The Encoding Process - Laying Down Memories

You can think of the process of storing memories in your mind to be similar to that of a computer that utilizes RAM (Random Access Memory) for the temporary storage of information before being placed in long-term storage on the hard drive. This temporary storage, or working memory, depends on a different network of brain structures than long term memories do.

Psychologists refer to storing memories as an encoding process--a procedure for transforming something a person sees hears, thinks, or feels into a memory. Scientists have determined there are different methods in how we lay down our memories.

Shallow Encoding

Repeating information to yourself , such as a phone number, is a process of encoding that is part of our working, short-term memory most of us use when we need to hold a small amount of linguistic information in mind for several seconds. Repeating a phone number to yourself only temporarily stores the information. Many people do not understand why this type of encoding doesn't work for long-term memory -- it is due to our utilizing our brain's phonological loop, that relies on a part of the brain designed only for short-term memory purposes.

Elaborative Encoding

If you've ever had trouble remembering something you truly wanted to remember, as most of us, you probably just view yourself as possessing less intelligence than others. These continued experiences of not being able to remember something promotes low self-esteem, not to mention embarrassment. What you are really missing in the memory encoding process, isn't intelligence, but a type of mental glue, scientists call elaborative encoding.

In order to encode incoming information, or an event, into long-term memory, the best way to do this is to link, associate or connect the incoming information with something already in your memory in order to make it meaningful. You can retrieve the memory, because you have an actual means to recall it, due to associating, linking or connecting the incoming information with something already in your memory.

There are visualization or guided imagery techniques you can also use to recall memories. You can visualize your mind as having many rooms, full of many objects related to your memories, of which you can add a new memory by placing it in its most appropriate room and location. This type of visualization and elaborative encoding known as Mnemonics was first used by Simonides, a Greek philosopher, back in 477 B.C., for his oratory speeches. Mnemonics has been used effectively throughout history and has played a major role, exerting a large influence on artistic and religious life, especially during the Middle Ages.

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Engrams are our Brain's Record of an Event

Engrams: How the Brain Stores Memories

The brain records an event by strengthening the connections between groups of neurons that participate in encoding the experience. This pattern of connections constitutes the brain's record of the event known as the engram. Engrams will lie dormant unless they are brought to conscious awareness with cues, to evoke, or retrieve them back into memory.

The Encoding Specificity Principle, a theory first advanced in the 1970's, states that a specific way a person thinks about, or encodes and event determines what gets into the engram.

Engrams Can Weaken and Even Disappear with Time

Time plays a major role in the memory process. Weakening and blurring engrams we never use, is a reality. Past experiences are constantly slipping away from us, some rapidly and others imperceptibly. Daniel Schacter, M.D. says, "Forgetting, though often frustrating, is an adaptive feature of our memories. We tend to remember only what is important and meaningful in our lives -- we don't need to remember everything that has ever happened to us; engrams that we never use are probably best forgotten. The cognitive psycholgoist John Anderson has argued convincingly that forgetting memories over time is an economical response to the demands placed on memory by the enviornment in which we live. We are better off forgetting trivial experiences than clogging our minds with each and every ongoing event."

Searching for Memory, the Brain, the Mind, and the Past
Daniel L. Schacter, MD
Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 1996