Memory and how the brain is involved in it

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Abstract

This paper will delve into the mysteries of the brain, and the way in which the brain and one’s memories are inter-connected with each other. The paper will analyze several experiments and also analyze certain related cases conducted by scientists and researchers to decipher the truth about human memory. The paper will also delve into the possibility of the human brain and memory being adversely affected by the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. A conclusion will be made.

Memory and how the brain is involved in it

    Memory can be explained as the process by which a learning experience that one may have undergone is retained over a period of time. Although memory is by no means a simple process, researchers prefer to classify it into two categories, short-term and long-term. However, one must remember the fact that a ‘working memory’ of the human brain is required to store information that is used as and when necessary for higher level cognitive functions. These are the functions of the human brain that involve thinking processes in language learning, problem solving and so on.  (Jonathan D, William M Perlstein et al 1997) However, cognitive development during an individual’s childhood is directly related to the level of maturation of the cells of the brain, although this facet of human brain and memory is still relatively unresearched and therefore, statistics unavailable.  (Fredrick Elen, Julian Macoveanu et al 2007)

    In general, researchers state that human memory encompasses several components, including basic features like sight, sound, taste and smell, and all the small episodes in an individual’s life become irretrievable woven into a coherent whole that is the memory, and scientists have been unable to discover exactly how this sort of binding of instances of memory takes place within the human brain so that the memories are retained. Scientists agree however that the ‘hippocampus’, or the memory center of the human brain is responsible for processing the memories of an individual. Melina Uncapher and her colleagues published an article in the journal ‘Neuron’ in 2006, in which they describe a set of experiments to delve into human memory, conducted with human volunteers. According to the researchers, the subjects of the experiment were presented with a series of ‘study’ words, while their brains were scanned using the method of functional magnetic resonance imaging, in which radio waves measure the flow of blood to the brain when a memory is being processed within. The volunteers had to watch words of various colors, located in different quadrants of the display screen, after which they were presented with not only the study words but also a set of new words. They had to remember whether or not the words they were seeing were old, or if they were new. They also had to recollect which part of the quadrant they had observed the old words, and what color they had been shown in.

    Once this was done, the scientists correlated their fMRI data collected both during the initial scanning, and also during the subjects’ recollection of the various features of the study words. The conclusion of the analysis of the data was that the regions of the brain used for processing colors and locations were active, and that these were the regions of the brain that were responsible for the formation of memories. (Cell Press 2006) In the meantime, researchers including Dr Jay Gottfried and his colleagues at the University College, London have managed to establish and prove the fact that human memory of an event that has happened in the past may be in fact spread across various parts of the brain, like the hippocampus and the olfactory cortex, the area that is responsible for storing smells. In a breakthrough experiment, these scientists wished to prove that just as smells trigger memories, memories can be induced to reawaken forgotten smells. This could prove to be especially useful to marketing executives who would wish to, for example, sell beach cottages. If they could successfully induce long forgotten olfactory memories of sands and the salty smell of the beaches, then the buyers’ desire to book a cottage would be greatly enhanced.  The group of subjects was asked to create links between pictures of objects and certain smells. When the subjects were shown the same pictures at a later time, the olfactory cortex or the ‘priroform cortex’ appeared to be re-activated, although the smells were no longer present.  According to Dr Jay Gottfried, “Our study suggests that, rather than clumping together the sights, sounds and smells of a memory into one bit of the brain, the memory is distributed across different areas and can be re-awakened through just one of our sensory channels. This mechanism would allow human beings more flexibility in retrieving their memories. (Dr Jay Gottfried, 2004) This could be an extremely important piece of information for researchers attempting to find a link between olfactory memories and the human brain.  (University College London 2004)

    The vital role played by the hippocampus in both the storage as well as in the formation of new memories cannot be discounted. However, researchers are still unclear about the exact function that the hippocampus plays in the retrieval of long term memories. In an experiment conducted by Wendy Suzuki and her colleagues, monkeys were shown a complex image that was superimposed on four identical targets. The moneys would be rewarded with a different prize when they chose one particular target, and it was found that the monkeys were able to perform well with learned stimuli as well as with new stimuli that they learned to associate with the promised reward, through a method of trial and error. This experiment proved that the hippocampus located in the brain is largely associated with the storage of memory. It is when the brain becomes diseased, or affected because of an accident or for any other reason that the memory of the brain gets affected as well. (New York University 2004) Take for example an Alzheimer’s patient, who suffers memory loss to a great extent. Although it may be true that a large number of individuals do tend to lose their memory as they grow older and their brain ages, and their innate ability to concentrate on a given task may start to wane, an Alzheimer’s patient undergoes a progressive reduction in his brain functioning and capacity. Named after the individual who recognized and described, it first in the year 1906, Alzheimer’s is more common than was initially assumed, and today, about four million Americans suffer from this degenerative disease, thereby making it one of the more common diseases known to human beings, and also making it one of the more common causes of death on an individual. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s may start off with changes in the patient’s memory functioning, usually one of the first warning signs to those around him. These changes would comprise extreme forgetfulness, repetitiveness, greater difficulty in getting things organized, leading to a gradual but sure social withdrawal. Soon enough, the patient may suffer from a diminished capacity for language, and may find himself unable to perform even the simplest calculations. Over time, the individual loses his independence, and becomes totally dependent on his closest family members for his survival. (Piero G Autuono MD 2007)

    The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be difficult, because of the simple fact that some of the symptoms mirror those of clinical depression, but the clinical criterion that are used for the diagnosis of this progressive disease of the brain may include certain vital factors such as the insidious and subtle onset and eventually the progressive impairment of one’s memory, as well as other important cognitive functions. This is especially important because there are no real deficits in one’s motor abilities or in one’s coordination, or in his sensory functioning.    (Guy McKhann, MD, David Drachman, MD et al 1984)  However, it remains a fact that the actual reason for the onset of this progressive disease of the brain still remains shrouded in mystery even today, although it is now a proven fact that Alzheimer’s causes a reduction in the brain chemicals. Perhaps scientists would be able to find a way in which to prevent this most commonly dreaded disease of the brain, some time in the near future. (Hingley T Audrey 1998)

    It is a fact that the errors in memory that a human brain makes has been a subject of great fascination for scientists and researchers through the ages and across the globe. Today especially, in light of the ageing baby boom population in the United States of America, the problems associated with memory have gained in importance, and significance. According to a story in Newsweek in 1998, memory has become one of the major concerns of these baby boomers, especially as they try to cope with the multiple pressures of a fast changing world and work pressures. Memory failures occupy a large portion of their lives, causing great frustration and irritation, and incidents like misplacing one’s glasses, or forgetting one’s PIN number to access one’s money at an ATM become more and more common. To compound the problem looms the specter of the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease, and all this means that people are more and more preoccupied with memory and its related problems. According to Daniel Schater, the various malfunctions of human memory can be segregated into seven categories, namely transience, absent mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and finally, persistence. Every single one of these can and does have a tremendous impact on one’s daily routine and life, and can have serious consequences if ignored.

    Take for example transience and absent mindedness: these can be described as sins of omission, in which one may not be able to bring to mind a certain important fact. Similarly, if one were to ask another individual what his activities over the past few hours had been, he would be able to reply in great detail, whereas if he were to be asked about his activities over the past week, he may have forgotten a few details, while if he were asked about his activities six months previously, more likely than not he would have forgotten most of it. This would prove that transience can be considered an important factor of memory, and is often the main culprit in causing memory problems. Absent mindedness on the other refers to the division between one’s attention and memory. Misplacing a key, for example can occur because one may have been preoccupied with other more important tasks at the time, thereby not paying attention to the task at hand. In this case, the information would not be considered lost over a period of time, since the brain does not even register the memory. Blocking can be explained as a thwarted search for information, which one may have been trying to retrieve with some desperation and urgency. Astonishingly, the information may pop up unexpectedly a few hours or a few days later when one is not consciously trying to retrieve it from memory. Misattribution, suggestibility and bias and persistence are considered to be more sins of commission than omission. For example, one may misattribute a memory to a wrong source, or mistake reality for fantasy. This type of misattribution can have long term serious consequences, especially where legal matters are involved. Bias is an interesting facet of human memory, in which one’s current knowledge may cast an unwanted influence upon the manner in which one remembers the past. Persistence can be a disturbing and persistent recall of certain disturbing information, which can be described as remembering something that one may not want or wish to remember, but which one’s brain brings up into memory with fierce persistence. (Schater, Daniel n.d)

    One interesting case of problems of memory is that described by Breuer in his work ‘Studies on hysteria’. The patient in question was one Anna O, who displayed a multiple of hysterical symptoms. During one session of therapeutic hypnosis, the patient spontaneously started to relive one of her traumas and also the exact reason for the onset of certain unwanted behavioral symptoms. For example, the patient, although she was extremely thirsty, was not able to drink a glass of water. It was during one therapeutic hypnosis session that Anna O related how she ventured into a room once to find a dog drinking from a glass, and the disgust that she felt at this sight prompted her to refuse to drink water from a glass thereon. However, the therapist found to his intense surprise that after relating the onset of the symptoms, the symptoms disappeared. Similarly, Pierre Janet describes the case of Marie who suffered from an onset of varied symptoms just before the beginning of her menstrual cycle. The patient would suffer convulsions, vomit blood, and her period would stop, after which she would become completely normal again. It was during a hypnotherapy session that the physician was able to ferret out a memory buried deep within the woman that indicated that having one’s period was shameful in some way, and that it would be best to stop it as soon as possible. Apparently the woman had immersed herself in a cold water bath at the onset of her first period, and this method had stopped the blood flow successfully, although it had given her convulsions. This was the reason why the woman was replaying the symptoms over and over again, every month. The psychologist tried to regress the patient into the age of her menarche, thirteen. She was thereby placed in the original circumstances of her delirium, at which time the psychologist had to convince her that the cold water had in no way at all served to arrest her period. When this was done, both the patient and the physician found to their amazement that the next cycle was absolutely normal in all ways, and that the patient had simply eliminated all symptoms from her memory. (Bremner, J Douglas n.d)

     It is clear at this point that not many of one’s actions depend upon any one single mechanism; instead, they depend upon a series of conflicts within the human brain and within the processes of memory, and memory can therefore be defined as being, according to Silvia Helena, “a process of information retention in which our experiences are archived and the recovered when we recall them (Silvia Helena) neurologists prefer to divide memory into, as mentioned earlier, short term and long term, although it is also true that some scientists are perpetuating the theory that there is one more phase in human memory, termed ‘middle term’. Short term memory describes the system that the brain uses to remember information that is ‘in use’ at that particular moment in time, and it typically makes up three functions: the central executive that controls all attention, the visuospatial sketch pad, which controls visual images in the brain, and the phonological loop, which is responsible for controlling and also rehearsing speech based information received by the brain. Long term memory on the other hand is the capacity of the human brain to retain and store information over long and extended periods of time. Long term memory can include at least three different types of memory: procedural, which is perhaps responsible for a person learning how to drive and then remembering it, declarative, which refers to one’s memory for facts and figures. The third is remote memory, which one may have acquired earlier on in one’s life. They are also known as representative memories and it upon this foundation that newer memories are built.      (Warren, Suzanne 1997)

    To conclude, it must be stated that the relationship between the human brain and memory is strong indeed, and it is the brain that plays the most important role in the way in which an individual may be able to store, access, encode, and retrieve his or her memories, which may have been formed through his life, and created by his own personal life experiences.

References

 Schater, Daniel (n.d) The seven sins of memory, how the brain forgets. Google book search Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://books.google.co.in/books?id=m8qMjPF1NYAC&dq=brain+and+memory&pg=PP1&ots=UE6UokA0M5&source=citation&sig=XCcaOgKY9uGvsa_6MHyWa8OV8q8&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.co.in/search%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Dbrain%2Band%2Bmemory%26btnG%3DSearch&sa=X&oi=print&ct=result&cd=1&cad=bottom-3results

Bremner, J Douglas (n.d) Trauma, memory and disassociation Google Book Search retrieved June 6, 2008, http://books.google.co.in/books?id=oelsBrqMlAIC&dq=brain+and+memory&pg=PP1&ots=Vf6o2in3Wo&source=citation&sig=98H53k4UQU6FA62p7AEKv4ia9nY&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.co.in/search%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Dbrain%2Band%2Bmemory%26btnG%3DSearch&sa=X&oi=print&ct=result&cd=2&cad=bottom-3resultsJonathan D, William M Cell Press (2006) How the Brain Weaves a Memory Science Daily Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/11/061108154604.htm

Fredrick Elen, Julian Macoveanu et al (2007) Journal of cognitive neuroscience MIT Press Journals Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/jocn.2007.19.5.750

Guy McKhann, MD, David Drachman, MD et al (1984) Clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease American Academy of Neurology Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://www.neurology.org/cgi/content/abstract/34/7/939

New York University (2004) Scientists Show Hippocampus’s Role in Long Term Memory Science Daily Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/05/040513010413.htm

Perlstein et al (1997) Temporary dynamics of brain activation during a working memory task Nature Publishing Group Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v386/n6625/abs/386604a0.html

Piero G Autuono MD (2007) Current research on Alzheimer’s, memory loss and ageing Healthlink Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://healthlink.mcw.edu/article/980547889.html

Hingley T Audrey (1998) Alzheimer’s, few clues on the mystery of memory US Food and Drug Administration Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://www.fda.gov/FDAC/features/1998/398_alz.html

Warren, Suzanne (1997) Memory and the Brain Serendip Retrieved June 6, 2008, http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f97/projects97/Warren.html

University College London (2004) Remembrance Of Smells Past: How The Brain Stores Those Meaningful Memories. Science Daily Retrieved June 6, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/05/040527080803.htm

 

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