By Rita Nicholson
It is 1964 and the year of Cindy Allman’s earliest memory. Allman is five years old and is in her grandfather’s car. It has suicide doors, ones that open from the middle.
Allman, now a substitute teacher for the school district, commented, “It was the neatest car I’d ever seen.”
Strangely enough, Allman only remembers her grandfather’s car and not much of her grandfather himself. She knows of his appearance solely through photographs. Her family visited him once, occasionally twice, a year, so it seems odd that she would remember just his car.
Many parts of the brain are responsible for memory. The memory center, however, is the hippocampus, located in the center of the brain.
There are two stages of memory: short term and long term. Most information first enters the short term memory. Some of that information will eventually make it to long term memory.
“The first thing it [the hippocampus] does is figure out if something’s important enough to remember, and then it goes in short term memory. When things get rehearsed in short term memory, then the brain picks up on that and will send some stuff to long term memory,” said Jason Bagwell, the psychology teacher at SHS.
The Atkinson-Shiffrin theory suggests that a third stage of memory exists, called sensory memory. Information in this memory stage is processed from the five senses.
The storing of memories takes place all over the brain, not just the hippocampus. Muscle memory is stored in the cerebellum, while memories with strong emotional ties are located in the amygdala.
Bagwell described the amygdala as having the ability to “make very powerful memories because we connect emotions to them.”
Personal memories are located in yet another part of the brain. The parietal lobe is home to memories to which one has a personal connection, like birthday parties.
Sophomore Eric Marcum talked about one of his earliest personal memories. When Marcum was in preschool, his class took a field trip to the zoo. During the trip, Marcum and his friends were eating lunch when they had an unexpected guest.
“We sat down, and I started eating a peanut butter sandwich, and all of a sudden I felt something banging into my leg. I looked down, and there was just a goose sitting there hissing at me even though I was there first,” Marcum reminisced.
Marcum still remembers this over 10 years later because that particular moment captured his attention. In doing so, he demonstrated how memories are made.
The formation of a memory starts when someone is being observant. If one is not paying attention, they are unlikely to remember a particular instance or event.
“It’s all about attention,” stated Bagwell.
Bagwell gave an example; the everyday drive to school is not likely to be memorable. However, if a deer jumps in front of the car, then someone is much more apt to remember the drive; the deer broke up the monotony of the everyday drive and captured the person’s attention.
The earliest memories can be created between the ages of three and five, according to Bagwell. Some people may claim to remember things from before those ages, but it’s likely that they are truly remembering false memories.
A common way to create false memories is through stories, or even simply remembering an event. Every time something is recalled, it is temporarily retrieved into short term memory. While the memory is in short term memory, the person can make changes, either intentionally or inadvertently, before the memory, possibly modified, is sent back to long term.
Stories can change or help create memories if one is told them enough. If someone is repeatedly told a story of an event involving their younger selves, it’s possible that they will create a false memory because “that picture’s been painted vivid enough,” said Bagwell.
Bagwell described a mother who used this method of creating false memories on her daughter.
He told about “a mom that after a divorce tried to, and was fairly successful, in planting memories of abuse in her daughter’s mind from the dad, and then used that against him in custody hearings.”
The mother created memories of abuse in her daughter’s mind through stories.
Bagwell said, “You tell those stories enough, especially if people are young, they’ll start to believe it.”
Despite false memories and lack of attention, there are some theories that suggest that humans never truly forget anything; it only seems that way because humans lose access to some information.
“People basically say you use 20 percent of your brain. Something else has gotta be going on in the other 80 percent,” speculated Bagwell.
The human memory is also susceptible to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia. According to Bagwell, neurons in the hippocampus die off. The dead neurons affect one’s ability to recall memories, which manifests in ailments like Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
Bagwell explained, “If you’ve ever known someone who has Dementia or something like that, it’s not that they don’t remember, it’s that they can’t retrieve the memory.”
The human memory is an extremely complex topic that remains just out of reach of complete human understanding. Many explanations are simply theories and are not 100 percent supported with scientific evidence.