Memory is one of the most important processes that our brain does. It allows us to make sense of our world and learn from experiences. Without a doubt, memory is one of the hardest subjects to study in neuroscience. One of the reason that memory is so hard to study is the fact that it is not a skill, but a collection of skills. It involves many aspects of consciousness and can be affected by different means. If you were asked to recall an event, say a dinner last week, your brain will use different areas in order to create the image of the event. What you were eating, smelling, experiencing, and feeling at that particular time, combine in order to create the mental picture of the dinner. Not only that, but stuff learned after the dinner could also play a role in how your brain constructs the memory. For example, you might have really enjoyed the dinner right after you left the restaurant, but if all the friends that were with you really hated the food you might begin to think the experience wasn’t as good as you thought. It is for this reason that researchers have come to understand that memories are not rigid, but fluid constructs that depend on multiple levels of reasoning. For this reason, one of the most common tools to improve memory is increasing the associations between the concepts.
As explained in an article from TIME magazine, one study had its participants draw an object that represented a simple word in the hopes of improving its recall. The word was always something simple, like balloon or stick, and the time that participants spent drawing was controlled for. For example, the participants had to memorize a random lists of words by either looking at each individual word for 10 seconds or drawing the words in the same time. This was done in order to ensure that any benefits in the participant’s recall were due to an actual benefit of the associations instead of simply having more time to think about the object while they were being drawn. The researchers reasoned that having a visual, as well as a mental processing of the concept would lead to increased associations and subsequently better recall of the words. They were correct. No matter how much time the participants spent memorizing the words one thing was consistent: drawing the words led to better recall accuracy.
However, our brains might not even need to be consciously processing associations between concepts in order to see benefits in our memory. As seen in Dr. Vargas’s study, pairing newly learned information with sound cues during REM sleep led to spatial recall advantages. In this study, participants were first taught to associate unique objects to specific locations on a computer monitor. Each object was also paired with a sound cue (for example, kettle was paired with a whistle sound). The participants would then take a nap with an unobtrusive white noise in the background. During the non-REM stage, these participants were cued with some of the characteristic sounds of the objects. After the participants were awaken, they would attempt to place the objects on their corresponding locations in the monitor. The results showed that objects which had received the sound cues during the nap saw better accuracy in their spatial arrangements when compared to objects that had not been paired with their sound cues.
These findings highlight the complexities of memory formation processes in our brain. These studies show how associations formed during the events can be just as important as the actual information being stored. It seems as if our memory is a complex and fluid network; understandably, this network is very difficult to understand or even study. However, studies like these help develop strategies in which we can improve our memory. They also reveal key aspects of memory formation and help find new insights into this process. Since memory is so vital to what makes us human, there will continue to be investigations and research on memory; no matter how daunting or difficult this subject remains.
Kluger, Jeffrey. 2016. "Here's the Memory Trick That Science Says Works." Time, April 22.