Memory Memory & Learning

Superpower: Memory

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One question which is guaranteed to start a debate: if you could have any superpower, what would you choose?

The most common answers are:

  • Ability to Fly
  • Freezing Time
  • Super-Strength
  • Super-Speed
  • Mind Reading
  • Invisibility

These would all be awesome powers to have, but alas, unless some great discovery or incredible invention comes to light, they’re all pretty unachievable. However, if you ask a group of adults if they could improve anything about the way their brain works, there’s a high chance you’d hear the following answer – “I wish I had a better memory”.

We’ve all been exposed to countless fictional interpretations of outstanding cognitive ability from characters such as Da Vinci, Sherlock Holmes and Mike Ross (Suits).

Sherlock Holmes performed hundreds of experiments to build a knowledge base which enabled him to spot the tiniest details and from them abduct an entire scenario. Da Vinci was able to make connections between completely unrelated disciplines to great effect. Mike Ross is able to recite the BarBri Legal Handbook and also demonstrate an outstanding knowledge of  the minutia of law without breaking a sweat.

All their skills rely on the ability to retain, process and organise a vats amount of data and information – a process we call memory.

So how does memory work?

The brain is made up of 100 billion nerve cells called neurons. Neurons receive and transmit electrochemical signals through pathways we call synapses.

All memories begin as stimuli through one or more of the five senses, these stimuli are stored and recorded as electrochemical signals which are sent through pathways in the brain, synapses, from one neuron to another.

The connections between neurons aren’t static, and change over time. With each new experience, more connections are made between each neuron meaning that over time, the brain actually physically re-wires itself – this is known as brain plasticity. I’ve included some links to some great articles on brain plasticity in the resourced sections.

The more links there are, the stronger the connection grows to that memory, habit or skill. The more connections a memory has, the more likely you are to remember it.

A good way to visualise this, is to think of your memories as destinations and the connections are roads.

A large city has thousands of connections and roads leading to it, showing how important it is. This is just like your own name, you’ve had thousands of experiences linking to the use of your name and so you’ll never forget it.

However, the name of 4th King of England could be thought of as a solitary wooden shack in the Scottish highlands. It has only a small dirt road leading to it and is much harder to access, like the memory.

The above analogy does rely on the assumption that memories have fixed locations (i.e. cities), but while this isn’t true, it’s the closest explanation I can give that is easily understood.

Memory is made up of a network of neurons and synapses that work together to create, store and recall information.

We can improve our memories, by increasing the number of mental connections between our existing knowledge and new ideas.

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