Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#182: The Importance of Memory

May 26, 2017

Why bother remembering anything?

There’s no need to remember anything when you can just ask Google.  Right?

Dr. James McGaugh, professor at the Center of the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (CNLM) at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), disagrees.

Press play to learn why memory is our most important ability.

The Vagarities of Memory

If memory is so important, why do we remember some things and not others?  Two of the biggest factors are repetition and importance.

One of the clearest and strongest findings in the field of memory research is that repetition makes a memory stronger.

If you’ve ever studied for a test, you’ll know that one of the best ways to learn new information is by quizzing yourself over and over again.  That’s repetition.

Another unsurprising finding:  Important events are remembered better than unimportant events.

From a survival perspective, this makes a lot of sense.  Memories are useful not to reminisce, but to be able to predict the future based on past experience.  The better we can predict future events (especially dangerous ones), the more likely we are to react appropriately.

Controlling Our Memories

Our body’s reaction to exciting or unique experience helps us form strong memories of them.  After an emotionally intense (whether negative or positive), we release adrenaline in our bodies and noradrenaline in our brains.

These two neurotransmitters work together to enhance the consolidation (storage) of the memory, as long as the increase happens within about 30 minutes of the event.

Despite common wisdom to the contrary, we don’t have a bias in remembering negative or positive events, but we do tend to react more strongly to negative events.  Once you control for that emotional reaction, we don’t form stronger memories of negative events.


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We can also weaken memories.  Beta-blockers block the action of adrenaline, weakening the formation of memory.

But beta-blockers must be administered immediately after an event to prevent memory formation.  Even a few hours later is ineffective — we can’t erase an established memory, only block the formation of a new one.

Beta-blockers are commonly prescribed for high blood pressure.  Although people taking beta-blockers won’t experience any problems with their day-to-day memory, they may have weaker memories of important personal events.  Dr. McGaugh reminds us that this connection still needs to be investigated, however.

Remembering Your Life

Our autobiographical memory — memories concerning ourselves — creates who we are as people.  However, over time we forget our autobiographical experiences, and the memories that remind don’t always consist of as many details as you might think.

There are some people with almost perfect autobiographical memory.  They can tell you with great ease what they did or experienced on a specific date decades past.  Although this talent is impressive, in our advanced technological world, it’s not particularly useful.  So don’t feel jealous.

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