The Mind, Explained


Yanjaa Wintersoul, Memory Champion. Holds 3 world records for images, words, names and faces.

Memories. Wow. They are our everything. That’s all we have at the end of our lives. They define and describe how our times were. Memory is one of our most fundamental activities, and it is only when it fails that we think about it at all.

But memory is also tricky, error-prone and unreliable. So I’m very grateful that we can write things down and read them later. In my notes, this article was just 44 lines. Thanks to them, this webpage will be much more valuable than a verbal review I could tell you in person.

About 50% of the details of a memory change in a year, even though most people are convinced they’re 100% right.

Elizabeth Phelps, NeuroScientist

You may correctly remember the gist of a day, but not details like who you were with, what you were doing when you heard of an event, and what exactly you saw. And typically with emotional memories, we tend to remember the central aspects. So our attention zooms in on the core of that experience, so we might forget some of the peripheral details, like, what the perpetrator was wearing, but we remember the gun.

Even our most significant memories, the ones that form the foundation of our life story, aren’t perfect recordings. They can shift and warp over time.

Since we call it memory, our presumption is that the whole purpose of memory should be to preserve the past. So why are memories so unreliable? Memories aren’t high-fidelity recordings that we store away. They’re more like live performances, created with input from different parts of the brain in the present moment. Our memory just mediates our interaction with the world. Then we use pre-existing knowledge such as semantic memory or facts that we have or pre-existing biases and beliefs to fill in those gaps.

We remember a lot of things like lyrics of songs which have hundreds of letters very easily. But cannot remember very large numbers. Memory athletes like Yanjaa Wintersoul have a special way around that. They convert numbers to letters and grouping these letters to make words and then use these words to imagine a story. They use visceral things and dramatic twists in the story to make it more memorable. They also use the ancient technique of ‘The Memory Palace’, adding surreal imagery along the route of a neighbourhood they know well.

Memory, that everybody has, is a gold mine of unexplored and untapped potential.

Some old dude at World Memory Championships

History of Memory

When Henry Molaison was 27 (1953), he had brain surgery to treat epilepsy and the surgeon removed a little piece of his brain that led to very grave recent memory loss. It was so severe, it prevented him from navigating his own house and recognizing his doctors. Henry’s other types of memories were fine, like habits that don’t require conscious thoughts; so-called “implicit memories.” He also kept some conscious or “explicit memories”. Explicit memory consists of Semantic and Episodic memories.

Semantic memory stores facts, dates, numbers, words, etc. These are the kinds of things that memory athletes memorize.

The real damage was to Henry’s episodic memory, his memory for personal experiences. He couldn’t remember what he did yesterday. Or that same day’s morning.

Without this one small part of his brain, Henry had trouble forming new memories. But memories are not stored at one specific place in our brain. When you have an experience, sensory information is processed to many different parts of your brain.

SoundAuditory Cortex
Feeling of touchPost
Faces of familiar peopleFusiform Gyrus

Every time we relive a moment, the medial temporal lobe helps combine those elements once again. Your life story is all such moments that you can relive.

The fact that we reconstruct our episodic memory, put the pieces back together, means that our episodic memories are actually very flexible. Scientists have been able to exploit this flexibility to plant false childhood memories of being left at a shopping mall, taking a hot air balloon ride, even having tea with Prince Charles!

More than 2 decades after she was raped, Jennifer Thompson appeared on T. V. with the man she had identified as her attacker. Years after Ronald Cotton was imprisoned, DNA evidence proved that Jennifer had been raped by another man. 70% of convictions overturned in U. S. involve eyewitness testimony. It’s not just our memories of crimes that can become contaminated. It’s the memories that tell us who we are and where we came from.

Memories over time

We have only a few memories from childhood. And nothing before around 3. But there’s this surprising bump in our teens and 20s.

How to increase your memory

You can improve your memory by just living a healthier and more active life.

  • Sleep a lot
  • Eat well
  • Meditate
Undergraduates were able to increase their score on the verbal GREs from 460 to 520 just by taking a mindfulness meditation class

Meditation improves focus and focus improves memory.

When it comes to personal experiences, there are certain features that make us remember some better than others:

1. Emotion

If you show a person a string of faces, they’ll remember the most emotional ones best. As Amygdala (emotional centre of the brain) sits right next to the Hippocampus, it up-regulates the hippocampus when we have an emotional experience. So a more detailed and stronger memory is formed.

2. Place

People are very consistent about where they were. So place has a particularly strong role in memory. In hippocampus, there seems to be cells that are specifically responsive to time and place. The hippocampus grows in size as we memorize things.

3. Story

Memories can be strengthened by story. Our brains pay much closer attention to information when it’s in the form of a narrative. The more you can associate to be remembered with structures you already have in your mind, the easier it will be to remember. When we retrieve that memory we have multiple ways of getting into that memory.

Superpower: Time Machine

The same network engaged in recalling past experiences lights up when you try to imagine the future. When you let your mind wander, you switch back and forth all the time, remembering and imagining.

Your mind is a Time Machine.

The same machinery that brings all those pieces together to relive the past, can bring some of those pieces together with other pieces to simulate possible futures. Now, the flexibility that leads us to remember things that never happened, that undermines the justice system, that corrupts our most vivid memories, it starts to look like a superpower; the key to our success as a species.

It allows us to troubleshoot upcoming experiences, to think through the ways in which events might unfold, potential obstacles that might come up and ways in which we might deal with those obstacles.

It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.

Queen of Hearts, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass

And some scientists say the simulation engine between your ears does something more profound: it weaves together memories of the past and dreams of the future to create your sense of self.