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The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting

By Lisa Genova
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Remember by Lisa Genova

Remember (2021) is about our marvelous and flawed ability to create memories. It explores the different sorts of memories we create, how the brain makes them, why they often fail, and what we can do to get the best out of our astonishing and troubled capacity to remember.

Key idea 1 of 10

Memory is a physical thing triggered by attentiveness and generated through a process of encoding and consolidation.

Anything you perceive evaporates in about 15 to 30 seconds unless you get that information to the hippocampus – a deep brain structure that knits neural activity into long-term memory.

This is how that happens: When you’re fully attentive in a moment of some action, your brain translates raw data from your senses into neural activity within the prefrontal cortex. This process is called encoding. From encoding, we move to consolidation, where the information passes from the prefrontal cortex into the hippocampus. Here, the neural activity is bound into a stable pattern. That pattern of neurons is now your memory of the moment. But what is “memory” and how exactly does it work? Well, there are three main types of memory functions you rely on in your daily life: semantic, episodic, and muscle memory. The memories consolidated by the hippocampus fall into two categories, the semantic and the episodic, so let’s start there.If you have a US penny in your pocket, go ahead, dig it out, hold it in your palm and give it your attention. You’ll see that Lincoln faces right, the phrase In God We Trust arcs overhead, the year sits before his chest, and the word Liberty hangs by his shoulder.

As you look at the coin, this image of the penny is being encoded in the prefrontal cortex of your brain. Remember though that, if you want this memory to stick, it has to be consolidated in your hippocampus. So, study the penny. Pay attention to its details. If you do so repeatedly, the neural representation will eventually travel to the hippocampus of the brain where it’ll be bound into a stable neural pattern, becoming your long-term memory of the penny, ready to be activated on demand.

This sort of memory is what’s called semantic memory. This type of memory comes about through studied repetition or repeated actions in your daily life. The barista at the cafe, for example, knows what the regulars order because she’s heard it day after day. 

By contrast, episodic memories are connected to a place and time. They’re the impactful, surprising, and meaningful moments of your life that the brain has translated into stable neural patterns – events, like the first time you held your daughter, or shocking moments, such as a car accident.In the next blink, we’ll take a closer look at these particular types of memory.

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