Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Long-term memory

Long-term memory includes both our memory of recent facts, which is often quite fragile, as well as our memory of older facts, which has become more consolidated. Long-term memory consists of three main processes that take place consecutively: encoding, storage, and retrieval (recall) of information.

The purpose of encoding is to assign a meaning to the information to be memorized. For example, you might encode the word "lemon" as “fruit, roundish, yellow”. If you could not recall the word “lemon” spontaneously, then invoking one of the indexes that you used to encode it (such as “fruit”) should help you to retrieve it. How effectively you can retrieve information depends on how deeply you have encoded it, and hence on how well you have organized it in your memory. The process of encoding refers not only to the information being memorized, but also to its environmental, cognitive, and emotional context. Also, using mnemonic devices to associate ideas and images helps us to create links that facilitate encoding. (One classic example is the acrostic Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, for the musical notes on the lines of the treble clef.) But even when information has been well encoded, it can still be forgotten.

Storage can be regarded as the active process of consolidation that makes memories less vulnerable to being forgotten. It is this consolidation that differentiates memories of recent facts from memories of older ones. The latter have been associated with a larger amount of pre-existing knowledge. Sleep, and in particular the rapid-eye-movement (REM) phase of sleep, along with reviewing (such as studying for exams) play a large role in consolidation.

Lastly, retrieval (recall) of memories, whether voluntary or not, involves active mechanisms that make use of encoding indexes. In this process, information is temporarily copied from long-term memory into working memory, so that it can be used there. The more a memory has been encoded, elaborated, organized, and structured, the easier it will be to retrieve.
Thus, we see that forgetting can be caused by failures at any of these stages: poor encoding, insufficient consolidation, or difficulties in retrieval.

Retrieval of information encoded in long-term memory is traditionally divided into two categories: recall and recognition. Recall involves actively reconstructing the information, whereas recognition only requires a decision as to whether one thing among others has been encountered before. Recall is more difficult, because it requires the activation of all the neurons involved in the memory in question. In contrast, in recognition, even if a part of an object initially activates only a part of the neural network concerned, that may then suffice to activate the entire network.

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