What Memories Are Made Of


Matchless Miracle of the Mind

by Dr. David A. DeWitt

Our failure to remember where we parked the car isn’t necessarily a sign of senility. It shows our brain is working quite well, sorting out things that really matter in life!

“Where’d I park my car?”

Our inability to remember details can be annoying. Yet if we understand how our brain works—why it forgets some things and remembers others—we can gain a whole new appreciation for this marvel.

Many people mistakenly believe that the brain permanently stores all the information it encounters, but we just can’t always access it. In fact, we forget many things, which appear to be gone forever. And that’s a good thing!

Consider what happens if we remember too much. One famous psychology patient could remember lists of hundreds of random words without even trying, but this posed a huge problem. He had trouble forgetting anything. Even worse, he had difficulty distinguishing between useful and useless information. His brain was overloaded because he could not identify what was really important.

God created our brains to process an unimaginably complex stream of information—trillions of bits pour into our brain every second from all our senses. As we monitor the world, our brains must discard useless details and latch onto anything of short-term or long-term value.

As we juggle the humdrum details of life, our brains may sometimes get out of kilter. In the vast majority of situations, however, even the “average” mind performs unparalleled miracles.

Not Like a Computer

As a child, I had a good memory that impressed grownups. In the sixth grade I could recite all 40 U.S. presidents in order, the years they were in office, most of the vice presidents, and their home states. Some would compliment me, “Wow, you have a memory like a computer!” As a neuroscientist, I’m happy to say that human memory is quite unlike a computer’s—and infinitely more amazing.

Unlike computers, our brains are self-organizing, self-governing, and self-repairing. The processing center doesn’t file memories in a separate place. Instead, our brain uses the same cells that store our memories to process information, and it “builds” memories by making new connections between these existing cells.

How is this better than a computer string of 0s and 1s? Our memories aren’t just random facts we pile up and recite on demand. Instead, our brains use our memories to help us think creatively about new situations (and even raise new questions!). We are constantly assimilating outside information and incorporating it into how we think. The memories become a part of our thoughts.

We still have much to learn about how all this works. After all, the brain contains 100 billion cells, and each neuron can form tens of thousands of connections with other neurons. (That adds up to one quadrillion connections—1015—in case you were wondering.)…


image credit: Artwork from original by StockSnap