structures in the brain handle different kinds of memory
From Learn Faster
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| Long-Term Memory:
Why repetition, rehearsal and practice work so well
problem with short-term memory is that it’s, well, short-term.
The phonological loop component of working memory can only hold
something in our “mind’s ear” for a few seconds. As soon as we
dial the phone number, it’s forgotten, because we stop repeating
it in our mind. If you want to retain the number longer, you have
to do something more.
One of the ways to transfer information (like a telephone number)
from your mind’s ear to your long-term memory is to return to it
again and again (like the phone number of a close friend). Repetition’s
ability to consolidate knowledge in long-term memory works not
just for declarative memory — memory of facts and events — but
also for procedural knowledge of skills such as remembering how
to use a computer mouse or (in countries and states where it’s
still legal to do so) how to dial a cell phone while driving.
Moreover, the most recent research indicates that these bits of
information our brain pays special attention to during the day
will also be rehearsed at night when we’re asleep. So in addition
to performing “live” repetitions of knowledge or a skill, our brain
rehearses things offline as well — which is as good a reason as
any to avoid skimping on sleep.
Practice makes perfect
Neuroscientists have only recently figured out how the brain forgets
most of the data flooding through our minds every second of every
day, and yet allows us to remember those things that we practice
and rehearse. But it’s important to bear in
mind that consolidation of knowledge in long-term memory does
not guarantee it will stay there forever. If the same phone number
is dialed every day, it will be memorized for the time being.
But stop dialing it for any length of time and it’s back to the
phone book again. Cramming can work well if all you’re worried
about is passing the test. But it won’t help much if you want
to recall that knowledge a year later. In order to retain access
to most factual knowledge, we must remind ourselves of the details,
and use them, on an ongoing basis.
To sum up: Short-term memory traces fade quickly unless they are
maintained by repetition, rehearsal, and practice. By coming back
to information time after time, we can transfer it into our long-term
memory banks even if it’s as arbitrary as a PIN or combination
lock number. But is there any way we can help the memory process
along and steepen the learning curve? The answer is yes, but the
important thing to remember in this connection is that memory does
not work like a camera or tape recorder. We’re making a mistake
if we think of our brain as a passive recipient of information.
As memory researcher Alan Baddeley (1999; Essentials
of Human Memory.
Hove, UK: Psychology Press.) puts it, the central feature of human
learning is that it is dependent on organization.
Science: How Researchers Use Sea Slugs and Fruit Flies
to Study Human Memory
Since H.M.’s (H.M. was a man who developed amnesia after a
part of his brain was removed in an operation to cure his epileptic
seizures) case taught researchers about multiple memory systems,
a tremendous amount of detailed knowledge has been gathered
about how different kinds and stages of memory work in the
brain, on a fine-grained chemical and structural level.
Most of this work was done, believe it or not, by studying
such creatures as sea slugs and fruit flies. Sea slugs have
the advantage of possessing a small number of very large
neurons that happen to work by the same principles as ours.
So by studying very specific parts of very simple animal
systems, scientists were able to learn a lot about much more
complex human memory-creating and memory-storing systems.
Of course, there are some kinds of memory that humans have
and sea slugs and fruit flies don’t. Sea slugs can learn
to stop reacting if you prod them repeatedly in the gill,
a change in behavior relying on a simple type of learning
and memory called habituation.
Humans can handle this kind of learning while they’re still
in the womb. Fruit flies can learn to associate an odor with
an unpleasant shock if the two occur repeatedly together,
a form of learning and memory called classical
conditioning. These kinds of memory have been around
for hundreds of millions of years, far longer than humans
have existed on this earth. They are useful enough that evolution
doesn’t dispense with them, it just builds on top of them
as new species evolve.
But humans have other kinds of nondeclarative memory, such
as skill and habit learning (procedural
memory), as well as conscious forms of declarative
memory for events (episodic)
and facts (semantic).
Some of these kinds of memory depend (as H.M. demonstrated)
on the hippocampus and other nearby structures that sea slugs
and fruit flies don’t have. So how could you study these
kinds of memory in an animal model?
Even though non-human species can’t “declare” anything,
some of them do have a hippocampus, and they display evidence
of episodic memory when their behavior shows that they remember
having been in a certain location before. Birds have a hippocampus and
spatial memory, too. So researchers have been able to study
these other, hippocampus-dependent forms of memory in animals
such as monkeys and rodents. Using animals more complex than
sea slugs, then, scientists have been able to study declarative
memory on a detailed, molecular level as well. It turns out
that, even though declarative memory uses different parts
of the brain from nondeclarative memory, all kinds of learning
share the same essential molecular mechanisms for converting
experience into permanent structural changes in the brain.
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