In What Form Is Memory Stored In The Brain & Mind? An Introduction

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It might seem that we have an answer, but science is far from it. Let’s first look at how we can address this question.

In what form is memory stored in the brain? Let me create some variations of this question.

  1. What happens in the brain biologically speaking?
  2. What happens in the brain from the ‘mind’ or cognitive perspective?
  3. How is information from within the brain and the external environment translated so it can be stored biologically and have a mind component? In short, how are these seemingly disparate aspects of memory bound together?

1. What happens in the brain biologically speaking?

The biochemistry of memory.

The answer to question 1 has the following important points:

  • Memory is stored as a function of neural connections. Memory is a relatively stable form of neural states. That is, a neuron behaves in a specific way, say excite or inhibit certain chemicals called neurotransmitters (dopamine, GABA, etc.) that facilitate communication with other neurons. These neurons form a network. Stable neuronal networks represent memories. The key component is the connection between neurons which I’ll cover in the next 2 points.
  • The synapse – that’s the area between 2 neurons where communication becomes actionable. The synapse, in a manner of speaking, communicates with the neuron it is connected to.
  • Connections – dendrites and axons are parts of the neuron that link to other neurons. These parts form a network. This network can be specialized to represent a certain form of memory. For example, the memory of how the airplane cabin crew executes their instructions. These connections can also represent meta-processes such as how we think about solving the Rubik’s cube. It can represent an algorithm.
  • Memory can be of things we learn such as poetry, history answers, phone numbers and it can also be for complex mechanisms such as playing a song on the violin. The key point is that these would have a biological underpinning that represents the memory for these things and facilitate remembering the memory of what is learned previously.
  • It is fair to assume that most of the brain can hold memories across all of its many trillions of connections. Here is a small overview of how learning is consolidated as memories in the brain.

We now enter the idea of Engrams. This is the theoretical construct that describes the storage of memory at a biological level. We are still searching for engrams which represent specific memories.

Engrams are interesting because they are a proposed solution and an abstraction for many problems in memory. When we look at memory from different angles such as the brain’s organization, neural activity, mental components, etc., we can converge onto something we can observe and measure. This is an engram. As far as we know, engrams are a little mysterious – there may be dedicated ‘engram‘ cells in the brain or existing neurons may function as engrams.

The most surprising aspect of engrams is that there might not be a precise way to conceptualize them at the moment. Some experiments have shown that a memory can be destroyed by virtually switching of any neurons within a relevant region. So it is hard to pinpoint where the components of memory are stored. As per our current understanding, memory of single events is highly distributed (spanning multiple brain regions) instead of having a fixed place.

Where is memory stored in the brain
Locating memory in the brain is really hard. It is possible that we are technologically not ready to spot it or even know how to look for it!

2. What happens in the brain from the ‘mind’ or cognitive perspective?

The subjective and objective experience of memory

The answer to question 2 has the following important points:

  • The mental component of memory can be broken down to represent simple and complex ideas. These include images, sounds, feelings, etc.
  • The cognitive aspect of memory can be a holistic phenomenon such as remembering a whole day at school and could be very fine processes you learned in chemistry.
  • Most of what we can introspect about memory – what we remember, how it looks like, what components it carries, etc. are a part of the mental representation of memory.
  • These components are largely bound to sensory inputs that we have experienced. You know what a table looks like. You can remember it. This representation of a table is linked to the Engram that holds it biologically.

3. How is information from within the brain and the external environment translated so it can be stored biologically and have a mind component?

In short, how are these seemingly disparate aspects of memory bound together?

Now the awesome part – The answer to question 3.

Sorry to be a buzz-kill. We do not know how a memory that we recognize as ‘memory’ – your 16th birthday, college slides, first day of school, your shoes, movie dialogues, your first kiss, the face of your loved ones, etc. takes the form of a biological memory storage AND a mental representation. Some more memory-related food for thought.

  • We do not know how the two can be mapped together and stay linked.
  • We do not know if there is a missing component that links the two.
  • We do not know whether we are even looking at this correctly – should there be a missing component?
  • We do not know what the mental representations are made up of. Sure, we can say they are sensory in nature or they are abstract and subjective. But what is it? WHAT? Consciousness is not really the answer, IMO. It is just another ‘What?’

This question is an open question for scientists to answer.

To Understand and describe how information is translated into both a biological and mental phenomenon while being codependent is one of the biggest unanswered questions in science. We have only begun to understand the components that hold them together, far from a unified theory.

The easy part is over:) I’ll discuss the very specifics in another post. Until then, you can enjoy how human memory is conceptualized as a model.

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3 thoughts on “In What Form Is Memory Stored In The Brain & Mind? An Introduction”

    • We can’t really delete them but there are techniques to deal with them.

      You could let memories fade away by not recalling them. They eventually weaken and die out. The problem is us trying to remember the bad memories which reinforce them and make them stronger. You can associate a memory with new things to override it’s emotional burden. You can condition a memory to be neutral through a therapeutic process called ‘eye movement desensitization & reprocessing’. It’s really great for traumatic memories.

      But, science is progressing and we’ll soon be able to learn how deconstruct & destroy a memory. Some research on mice show that a memory of simple learning (fear like behaviour) can be deleted.

      Let’s wait for a while and find out how it can be used for humans!