Many people believe that memory is a kind of trunk where we store our memories . Others, who are more technology friendly, understand that memory is more like a computer on whose hard disk we store our learning, experiences and life experiences, so that we can use them when we need them.

But the truth is that both these conceptions are wrong.

So how does human memory work?

We don’t have any memories as such stored in our brains. That would be, from a physical and biological point of view, literally impossible.

What the brain consolidates in memory are “functioning patterns “, that is, the way specific groups of neurons are activated every time we learn something new.

I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, so I’ll just say that any information that enters the brain is converted into an electrical chemical stimulus.

Neuroscience of memories

What the brain stores is the particular frequency, amplitude and sequence of the neural circuits involved in learning. It does not store a specific fact, but the way in which the system works in the face of that specific fact .

Then, when we consciously or unconsciously remember something, an image comes to mind, what our brain does is to re-edit that specific pattern of functioning.And this has serious implications. Perhaps the most important one is that our memory deceives us .

We do not retrieve the memory as it was stored, but rather reassemble it whenever we need it by reactivating the corresponding operating patterns.

The “defects” of memory

The problem lies in the fact that this evocation mechanism occurs en bloc. The setting up of the system can bring as stowaways other memories that have been filtered out , that belong to another time or another place.

Science and Interference

I’m going to tell you about an experiment that shows how vulnerable we are to memory interference, and how we can be subtly induced to remember something in the wrong way, or that simply never happened.

A group of people were shown a video showing a traffic accident, specifically a collision between two vehicles.They were then divided into two smaller groups and questioned separately about what they had seen.The members of the first group were asked to estimate approximately how fast the cars were moving when they “crashed”.

The members of the second group were asked the same thing, but with a seemingly insignificant difference. They were asked how fast they felt the cars were going when one “slammed” into the other.

The members of the last group, on average, calculated much higher values than those of the first group, where the cars had simply “crashed”.Some time later, they were brought back to the laboratory and asked for details about the video accident.

Twice as many members of the group in which the cars were “embedded” as those in the other group said they had seen windshield glass blown out and scattered on the sidewalk . It should be noted that in the video in question no windscreen had been broken.

We hardly remember

We think we can remember the past accurately, but we can’t . The brain is forced to reconstruct the memory every time we decide to retrieve it; it must put it together as if it were a puzzle of which, to top it all, it doesn’t have all the pieces, since much of the information is not available because it was never stored or filtered by the attention systems.

When we recall a certain episode in our life, such as the day we graduated from college, or when we got our first job, the recovery of the memory does not happen in a clean and intact way as when, for example, we open a text document in our computer, but rather the brain must make an active effort to track information that is scattered, and then, gather all those diverse and fragmented elements to present us with the most solid and elegant version of what happened.

The brain “fills in” the gaps in memory

Potholes and blank spaces are filled in the brain by bits and pieces of other memories, personal guesswork and abundant pre-established beliefs, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a more or less coherent whole that meets our expectations.

This happens basically for three reasons:

As we said before, when we experience a certain event, what the brain keeps is a pattern of functioning. In the process, much of the original information never makes it into memory. And if it does, it doesn’t get effectively consolidated in memory.That forms bumps in the process that take away congruence from history when we want to remember it.

Then we have the problem of false and unrelated memories that get mixed up with the real memory when we bring it into consciousness. Here something similar happens to when we throw a net into the sea, we can catch some little fish, which is what interests us, but many times we also find garbage that was once thrown into the ocean: an old shoe, a plastic bag, an empty soda bottle, etc.

This phenomenon occurs because the brain is permanently receiving new information , consolidating learnings for which it often resorts to the same neural circuits that are being used for other learnings, which can cause some interference.

In this way, the experience to be stored in the memory can be merged or modified with previous experiences, making them end up being stored as an undifferentiated whole.

Giving meaning and logic to the world around us

Finally, the brain is an organ interested in making sense of the world . In fact, it even seems to feel an aberrant hatred for uncertainty and incongruities.

And it is in his eagerness to explain everything when, not knowing certain particular data, he invents them to get out of the way and thus save appearances.We have here another crack in the system, my reader friend. The essence of memory is not reproductive, but reconstructive , and as such, vulnerable to multiple forms of interference.