Memory – How do we use it?

How is it that we know all the lyrics to every song in an album, but can’t remember the periodic table? Why can we remember conversations from five years ago, but forget milk in the big shop? And why on earth do we leave a room, stop, think and completely forget why we left in the first place?

This is in no way a scientific article. My days in the science lab consisted of feeding splints into a Bunsen burner and executing the squeaky pop test. But like many young, ambitious journalists, I do appreciate a good ponder. Personally, my memory is like a cloud. I can see and admire what is furthest away, but as soon as I try and seize something closer it vanishes and fades through my fingers.

There is one answer to the bewilderment and misunderstanding of memory. It’s not a very helpful answer as it doesn’t explain why we overlook such simple daily occurrences. The reason we can remember who walked us to school on that crisp, sun-drenched, autumn morning, is because somewhere within our long term memory, we have ‘power of recall’.

‘Power’ is a vitally important word to describe that element of memory. The ability to recollect such precise, minor events from life is an incredible ability. Our brain is a fragile instrument that, when used appropriately, can play such sweet harmonies. We take for granted just how incredible our long term memory is. Picking out key, distant memories from our existence is like finding a grain of salt in the sugar pot, not impossible, but very difficult. So with this extraordinary talent, why do we have such terrible short term memory?

We can read, smell, hear and touch what is closest to us but not remember recent happenings. I’m not saying were all goldfish, swimming around aimlessly, being repeatedly surprised by the little castle in our bowl. But the vast majority of us often forget such minuscule facts, objects, dates and names. Okay, here is a very basic speck of science. In the Limbic section of our brain we have a small component called the Hippocampus. This is not a flamboyant Hippo. It is just one element of our brain that holds short and long term memory. Sometimes our short term memory is like a faulty USB stick. A file, (memory), gets lost and we have to search the computer, (brain), to retrieve, (remember).

This is where it all gets extremely baffling. Why is it that I can still remember every word from my first Shakespearian monologue, but can’t remember Pythagoras’s theorem? Personally I believe it comes down to personal choice, preference and ability. Two effects that definitely destroy and obliterate memory are nerves and stress. A perfect example is a talent show performed in, two years ago. I decided to sing ‘She’s always a woman to me’ by Billy Joel. I know every lyric to that song, most of his songs in all honesty. But as I mounted the stage, let the lights hit my eyes and caught sight of the audience, my mind was empty. My memory was a black hole, I felt every thought slip deep into the abyss. I stood frozen, let my anxieties triumph over me, and simply forgot every lyric.

This is why I assume our short term memory can disappear so swiftly. We can remember what is familiar to us. We can revise, learn and understand as long as we don’t let our concerns rule us. But our brain can only hold so much and because of this, the little things fall out from time to time. We forget the milk, overlook simple tasks and panic when we lose small details. Nevertheless, if this causes us to reminisce about incredible nostalgia and past memories, then maybe forgetting the small things shouldn’t concern us.

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