Memories & Meaning

Explore how our memories shape our lives,  how experiences become memories and how memories influence what and how we learn and form new memories.

Meaning that provides us with a sense of purpose is a key human need -[see Resources & Needs page] and there are many ways in which individuals seek to satisfy this need ranging from altruistic pursuits to narcissistic behaviours that are damaging to both the narcissist and others around them.  The wide diversity of human purpose arises as a result of how we use the resources we are born with to get our needs for meaning met. It is possible to understand why one person decides to become a suicide bomber and another decides to fly to Sierra Leone to help care for Ebola patients, when we consider their actions as a consequence of the combination of their need for meaning  [a human given] and their choices about how they use their innate resources [human givens] in which memories play a key role.

What goes on in our ‘minds’ is the result of different systems of intelligence that include [but may not be limited to] our intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social intelligence. All these levels of intelligence develop over our own temporal plain [time and space] and are influenced by our learning and memories. Our memories represent who we are in the present as influenced by our past. Our habits, behaviours, decisions, ideologies, hopes and fears are all reflections of what we remember [consciously and unconsciously] of our past.  Memory has the power to change who we are and it is predictive of who we will/can become.

The notion of memory is intriguing. Early theories described memory “engrams,” a literal text written by the body to describe past experiences. An engram is a hypothetical, biophysical or biochemical change in the neurons of the brain.  Hypothetical is used in this description because as yet no-one has actually seen or proved the existence of such a construct. Freud proposed the concept of repressed memories, experiences hidden in the depths of our subconscious. Modern descriptions are dominated by neuroscientists who are working to produce a map of the brains neural circuits. The ability of the synapse between two neurons to change in strength,  [see brain power page ] and for lasting changes to occur in the efficiency of synaptic transmission, is known as neural plasticity, it is one of the important neurochemical foundations of memory and learning. At the most basic level, we remember because the connections between our brain’s neurons change, each experience priming the brain for the next experience. However this simplistic statement undermines the complexity of human memory in all its guises and influences.

We know that our brains organise and reorganise themselves in response to stimuli and experiences. They create new memories as a result of our innate needs, feelings, experiences, learning and training. Memory formation and retrieval are associative processes. Stimuli and information coming into the brain forms relationships with information already dispersed as memory traces throughout the brain. From a neurobiological and behavioural perspective these memory relationships [associations] are dependant on reinforcement by repetition, practice, attention and/or emotional arousal.

Consolidation, the way we stabilise a memory could be considered as a memory process in its own right, or alternatively considered as part of the process of either encoding or storage. Often sub-divided into two specific processes, synaptic consolidation occurs within a few hours following encoding and system consolidation occurs when hippocampus-dependent memories become independent of the hippocampus over time, anything from weeks to years. Consolidation utilises  long-term potentiation, in which  increasing numbers of signals transmitted between two neurons intensifies synaptic strength – essentially when the same group of neutrons fire together often enough they can become permanently sensitised to each other. As such, a neuronal pathway, or neural network, is traversed over and over again and a enduring pattern is formed.  This is what occurs when a musician plays a piece of music over and over, the repeated firing of specific neurons, in a certain order in their brain, makes it easier for this firing to be repeated. They get better at playing the music, playing it faster, with fewer mistakes.

Our internal mental records, our memories provide us with a way to deal with the world around us, they come complete with all the knowledge and the skills we have cultivated using our templates of resources to get our innate needs met [see Resources & Needs page]. Encoding [how you form memories], storage [how you retain memories] and retrieval [how you recall memories] are the three primary stages of our memory process.  Forgetting might be considered as the fourth stage of memory – although technically its more likely a setback in memory retrieval.

Continually surrounded by information, we receive input from our senses more or less constantly making it impossible for us to process all of it. It would be unrealistic and inefficient to remember everything all of the time, to do so might jeopardise our sanity. Nature allows us to get round this by endowing us with innate resources [see Resources & Needs page] that allow us to make choices, both consciously and unconsciously.  Encoding new memories starts when we select [consciously or unconsciously] and focus our attention on something to be remembered. Our strength of purpose and motivation for remembering something can significantly impact our success at encoding information. Generally, tangible things are easier to encode than abstract concepts because we use words to express our thoughts but we think in pictures. If someone says to you – “pick up that pen”, you do not think p-e-n, you picture a pen. But if someone says to you “energy” you do not see anything concrete that is holistically representative of the word – it  is a more abstract concept that is difficult to visualise and therefore harder to encode as an exact construct.

Precisely how the human brain handles encoding is still a matter of active research and debate, current approaches categorise  three or four key modes according to the type of stimuli being received.

  • Acoustic encoding – processing and encoding of sound, words and other auditory input for storage and retrieval.
  • Visual encoding – process of encoding images and visual sensory information. Visual sensory information is temporarily stored within iconic memory before being encoded into long-term storage. The amygdala plays an important role in visual encoding as it accepts visual input in addition to input from other systems.
  • Tactile encoding is the encoding of how something feels through the sense of touch. Physiologically, neurons  react to vibrotactile stimuli caused by the feel of an object.
  • Semantic encoding is the process of encoding sensory input that emphasises a particular meaning or context for the information. In other words, making information personally relevant can deepen its encoding. Generally accepted to be a deeper level of encoding.

Encoding therefore is the first step to creating  a memory, allowing perceived stimuli to be converted into a coded construct that the brain can store and retrieve later from short-term or long-term memory. Laying down a memory is kick started by giving our attention to stimuli (regulated by the thalamus and the frontal lobe), in which a memorable event causes neurons to fire more frequently, thus intensifying the experience and increasing the chance of encoding as a memory. Information sent to the brain is dissected into its most significant elements which are largely [subjectively] relevant to our individual needs. An ensemble of brain cells processes incoming stimuli and translates the information into a neural code.  Emotion is associated with increasing our attention, and emotional elements of events are processed via unconscious brain pathways leading to the amygdala. Only then are actual ‘feelings’ associated with an event processed.

You go to a meeting and shake hands with someone introduced to you as Mr Smith, you are also introduced to someone called Mr. Calcuhuna. As the name ‘Smith’ is more familiar to you the effort to encode it into memory for later recall is easier. However if Mr Calcunha comes up to you during the meeting and tells you that he will become your new boss at the end of the month and reveals his intention to reorganise how things get done, it is likely you will also remember his name because of the emotional component to his message and his potential to influence how you get many of your needs met in your working life.

It is believed that in general, encoding for short-term memory storage  relies primarily on acoustic encoding, long-term storage  is more reliant (although not exclusively) on semantic encoding. First level memory starts with the formation of short-term memories via our ultra-short term sensory memory. The process of memory consolidation coverts short-term memory into long-term memory. The process begins with the creation of a memory trace in response to some stimulus – normally external stimuli.

Some Different Types of Memory

Sensory Memory – this is where we hold an image for a brief period of time and is often considered to be part of perception. It is an important step in the process for storing information in short-term memory. It can be thought of as a brief testing of sensory experience that gives us an instant to decide whether or not to pay attention to it. Lasting between a few milliseconds and  two seconds. Often divided into two types Echoic Memory [auditory sensory memory] and Iconic Memory [visual sensory memory].

Short-term Memory/Working Memory – Short-term memory or working memory-holds information we are actively thinking about. It is where we temporarily record the succession of events in our lives, registering things such as faces around us, or a telephone number we need to dial. Information in short-tern memory disappears quickly unless we make a conscious effort to retain it. Short-term memory has a storage capacity of about seven to nine items and lasts only a few dozen seconds. Short-term memory is a necessary step toward the next stage of retention, long-term memory.

Long-term memory is how we store significant events and information that mark our lives. It allows us to learn skills and maintain the meanings of words. Long-term memory stores memory for extended periods of time, from a few minutes to several years or a lifetime. It can be subdivided into different types based on whether the information is conscious [explicit] or unconscious [implicit].

  • Explicit (or declarative) memory is memory of facts and events, memories that can be consciously recalled – “declared”. It consists of information that is explicitly stored and retrieved. Explicit Memory/Declarative Memory can be further sub-divided into Episodic Memory [concerned with facts] and Semantic Memory [concerned with primarily personal or autobiographical information]. Episodic Memory [the kind most often affected by amnesia] is involved when you remember the name of an old friend, what you had for dinner last night and important dates such as your sisters birthday. In Episodic Memory you are represented like an actor remembering the events themselves and the totality of the context surrounding them. Consequently your emotional state at the time of an event conditions the quality of your memorisation of the episode – higher levels of emotion being correlated with higher levels of retention.  Semantic Memory is the residue of experiences stored in episodic memory.  The process involves episodic memory reducing its sensitivity to particular events so that the information about them can be generalised by semantic memory recognising common features of various episodes and extracting them from their context.  Thus a gradual transition takes place from episodic to semantic memory.  Semantic memory is our knowledge base of the world, much of which we can access quickly and effortlessly.  It includes our memory of rules and concepts to construct a mental representation of the world minus immediate perceptions. Abstract and relational, semantic memory lets us associate with the meaning of verbal symbols.–we can recall associative information such as the different countries in the world and their social customs or the functions of things and their smells and colours. Semantic memory contains information accumulated repeatedly through our life time of experiences and learning and is independent on the temporal context in which we acquire it – this reference memory is often spared when people suffer from amnesia  Despite the classification it is incorrect to think of Episodic Memory and Semantic Memory as isolated entities, they interact with each other constantly.
  • Implicit memory [or non declarative memory] involves the development of procedures for completing actions that are practiced over time. It is expressed in many of the motor skills we develop such as riding a bike or tying shoelaces. These memories do not require the use of language so in a sense they are unconscious memories. They are also referred to as Procedural Memory -“knowing how” to do things.  These memories are typically acquired through repetition and practice, and are composed of automatic sensorimotor behaviours that become so deeply embedded we are no longer aware of them. Conditioned emotional responses are also implicit memories that are the result of unconscious conditioning.  The amygdala is involved in encoding the positive or negative values of conditioned stimuli. The associative learning that forms the basis for these forms of memory is a very old process linked to survival mechanisms from our evolutionary past, therefore has no strong links to intervention of the conscious mind seated in the prefrontal cortex of our human brains.

Long-term memory is flexible but not infallible, it is capable of distorting facts and does not always represent an accurate history of events. Every time we remember something we create a confabulation pieced together from an assortment of stimuli and data. All memories are equally provisional, created due to our needs in the present. In our attempt to get our needs for status, self esteem or attention met, [see Resources & Needs page] we may be prone to the phenomenon of egocentric bias.  This occurs when people remember things in a way that makes them look better, over emphasising or talking up their own role in something, like a sport or in a work situation. Our brains can lie to us to to make us feel good about ourselves. Memory can get complex and confusing even when it’s working normally.

Retrieval is accessing our internal, infinite world of stored information, bringing old information from long-term memory back into working memory, where we manipulate and use it. Retrieval involves several areas of the brain and has several forms such as recognition and recall. We my recognise a familiar face but cannot work out how we know them.  Recall happens when we remember how to connect the face to a name or context. Context affects retrieval as we are more likely to remember something in the context in which the memory was encoded.  Trying to recall information by an alternative method to which it was encoded, is more difficult. For example, if your only experience of dog was visual you would have visually encoded the information into memory. In seeing the dog, or picture of the dog again, you recognise that you have seen the animal before, but that is the limit of your knowledge. Should you see the word “dog’ (semantic) or hear the barking sound (auditory) you could not match the name or the sound to the dog because you have no semantic or auditory encoding to reference. The advantage of encoding information in a variety of ways is that it increases retrieval options. Other retrieval factors include: recency – its easier to recall recent events/information and frequency – the more often you recall something from memory increases retrieval success.

Re-consolidation, is the process in which previously consolidated memories are recalled then re-consolidated all over again. During memory retrieval  a particular memory trace is reactivated providing an opportunity to change the strength of the neural connections. The recalled memory may become associated with new emotional influences, environmental conditions or acquired knowledge. Different expectations may become incorporated into the memory which change it during the re-consolidation process. Every individual act of remembering subtly changes the memory itself, becoming a copy of a copy of a copy, the most recent copy becoming a smudgier version of the first one.  Re-consolidation of human memory has been demonstrated repeatedly and across different tasks. Recent improvements in neuroimaging has underpinned incredible developments in the exploration of mechanisms underlying re-consolidation in the human brain.  Evidence points to a potential use of re-consolidation manipulations in the treatment of a wide range of mental stressors such as PTSD and addiction. However not all re-consolidation interventions are equal  because the actual nature of the reconsolidation process can influence whether memory is weakened, strengthened, or otherwise changed. Human Givens psychology incorporates the latest research and evidence about memory processes and Human Givens Practitioners are actively involved in on going research to enhance understanding of memory processes related to mental health and well being. We use our memories to negotiate with our present and we can use them to influence what we might become in the future.

In PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] people have experienced traumatic events they would actually prefer to forget. Their disabling memories have been imprinted more strongly than normal due to the strength of the emotional content. Human Givens Practitioners work with PTSD clients to tone down the emotional aspects of such memories, even if the memories themselves cannot be erased. Using skilled and proven techniques that exploit the malleability of long term memory, Human Givens therapy focuses on re-consolidating the memories so the disabling emotional content is re-saved at a manageable level. Similar techniques are employed by Human Givens practitioners to treat OCD [Obsessive Compulsive Disorders] and other behavioural issues that can adversely effect peoples lives.

Article by Ingrid Blades January 2015

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