Why we remember what we remember

posted by Jonathan Frei On Wednesday, October 07, 2009

So many events, images, sounds, and smells hit our minds every day, but not all of it sticks. We don't remember much of it, yet there is so much that we do.

Events that seemed insignificant at the time stay with us for our whole lives. Moment we promise ourselves to cherish grow foggy. Random episodes in our lives replay themselves in our heads, triggered by sounds, smells, or nothing at all.

There does not seem to be any set of rules that determines what you will remember and what you will forget. There is a science behind it, I suppose, but that is not what I am interested in exploring in too much depth. However, to be fair I offer the following.

Basically, external and internal stimulus cause the activation of certain chemicals within the brain which provides for a temporary remembrance, a short-term memory. As more comes in, what's there gets pushed out to make room in the short term memory, and the thoughts that are pushed out are filed and archived in long term memory.

There is so much that happens on the molecular and chemical level in the brain between the time we see or hear something and the time it gets stored in long term memory that it's a wonder we remember anything.

But we do, and that begs the question: Why do we remember what we remember?

Memory relies heavily by how the mind perceives events and what values it assigns to them. Much of what we remember depends on our levels of focus. Without focus or attention, the chances of converting experience from short to long term memory declines in proportion to the level of focus.

However, focus is not a guarantee of memory. Also, a lack of focus at the moment does not mean that a memory won't be created. Some sensations are strong enough to be pushed into long term memory, while other are not. This is why intense and extreme experiences are so memorable.

There are a number of reasons we forget and fail to remember. Sometimes memories just can't be retrieved when we try to think of them. Have you ever felt like you know the answer, maybe that you've answered the question before, but just can't bring the thought to your lips? Some things never make it past our initial experience. These events are never moved from short to long term memory.

There is also deliberate forgetting. There are some things we simply don't care to remember. They can either be unimportant and not worth the effort, or they can be a disturbing event or image that we cast from the mind. This can be deliberate or it can be an unconscious form of repression.

Memory is a mysterious thing, but it is key to understanding our world and shaping our experiences. Understanding why we remember what we do and learning how to remember what we want and forgetting what we don't will be the subject of other posts.

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