There are things I remember clear as day. When I walked for my degree. Where I was when I heard about the 9/11 attacks. How an announcement flashed on the screen at my first full time job, telling me I had left my headlights on. Some of these memories are incredibly important, and it’s no surprise that I remember them. Some others, not so much. Why do I remember that my downstairs neighbor had a white dog but cannot remember what the dog was called? It’s really odd and it leads me to one conclusion that neuroscientists came to many years ago:
Memories are complex.
Our brains aren’t perfect, they behave nothing like video cameras. We can’t just store a digital video that we have access to forever and ever. What happens when you make a memory is that your brain records lots of different things at the same time on different wavelengths, so to speak. For instance, say you are standing in a field, talking to your sister, while eating an apple. Your memory of talking to your sister, being in the field and eating the apple are all different from each other. When you recall the memory, you pull all of these ‘wavelengths’ together. You can’t pull one of these wavelengths out of the air without activating another one. For instance, you probably wouldn’t be able to recall what your sister was wearing if you couldn’t recall the particular memory and maybe even what she was saying to you.
Your brain needs to look after itself.
Basically, the reason your brain can’t record exactly everything that happened all the time is that it has to do lots of things! Imagine what it would be like if it also had to recall everything ALL the time. That’s why your memories are always reconstructive – that means that they put themselves together when you are thinking about them and not before.
These reconstructions are done physically with neurons and they eventually start to wear down, so we slowly start to lose memories. Neural networks may ‘house’ memories and as we get older, we start to lose these – that makes recalling memories much harder.
Making memories and even recalling memories is very complex, so remember that next time you strain to try to remember exactly what that person you need to call back said their phone number was. Maybe you are better off remembering where you put it.