Memory is the power of the brain to recall past experiences or information. In this faculty of the mind, information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. The purpose of our memory is to retain information that will influence our future actions. Without memory, we wouldn't be able to learn to speak, develop relationships, or possess personal identities. In the broadest sense, there are three types of memory. They are: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Typically, when we think of the word "memory", we're referring to long term-memory, such as recalling our telephone number, what we did last Friday night, or who's quarterbacking for the New York Giants. But, our minds also possess sensory and short-term memory. Sensory memories are quick, lasting no more than seconds. Short-term memories are slightly less passing, but they still get dismissed after mere minutes. Long-term memories are those that stick with us for extended periods of time and usually require a bit of recall to be brought to the forefront of our minds. Not all long term memories are the same, however; their many types function in different ways.
Sensory memory is our shortest form of memory. It's no more than a flash. Sensory memory acts as a buffer for stimuli received through the five senses. These images are accurately retained, but only for a very brief moment in time.
Have you ever waved a sparkler in the air and seen a trail of light behind it? That's sensory memory: an image, a scent, a sound. Just as it sounds, sensory memory works with our senses to recall some quick flash of information. Here's another example:
There are three subcategories of sensory memory. They are:
What about the other two senses? Even though we often hear that our sense of smell is our strongest link to the past, ironically, the above three subcategories are more extensively studied.
Have you ever smelled someone wearing your ex-girlfriend's perfume and had a flashback? Well, the sense of smell is pretty reliable because the part of your brain that processes smell sensations is very close to the part of your brain that processes memories.
Short-term memory, often interchanged with the name working memory, is temporary. It has a low capacity, as the information being processed will either be quickly dismissed, or entered into our long-term memory bank. It's sort of the precursor to long-term memory, which has many distinct facets with numerous functionalities.
Long-term memory is the brain's system for storing, managing, and recalling information. It is very complex with numerous different functionalities. As sensory memories only flicker for mere seconds and short-term memories last only a minute or two, long-term memories include anything from an event that occurred five minutes ago, to something that occurred twenty years ago.
There are many different forms of long-term memories. Sometimes they're conscious, requiring us to actively think in order to recall a piece of information. Other times they're unconscious, simply appearing without an active attempt at recollection (i.e. remembering how to drive from one city to another, even though you haven't taken that journey in nearly a decade). Let's take a look at some of the most prevalent forms of long-term memory.
Isn't the mind a fabulous study? It serves so many functions. It works as a receptionist in the form of sensory memory, admitting flashes into the mind. It also acts as judge and jury, deciding which facts will enter and exit quickly through the short-term memory bank, or advance into the long-term memory bank. It stores information for us to reach in and grab, whether we intentionally put it there, or don't even realize it's sitting there. The next time something "rings a bell" for you, give your mind a little pat on the back. It's giving you a nudge, as if to say, "Here, I think you might need this."
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