How Does The Brain Store Data?

This article will answer the question, “how does the brain store data?” and will also cover what memory is, the different types of memory, as well as the brain areas involved in the processing, formation, and maintenance of memories. The article will also answer some frequently asked questions about memory in the end.

How Does The Brain Store Data?

The brain stores information or data by switching how neurons communicate with each other. In this case, as one neuron fires an action potential, another neuron gets activated. Over time, these activated neurons form a connection. This connection gets stronger and stronger as we recollect, rehearse, and interact with the information stored.

When a memory is formed, the data processed flows from the cortex to the hippocampus. The reason why data flows from the cortex is that the cortex is rich in nerve cells. The information then flows in a converse manner when we try to recall a memory. 

Learning New Information Leads to Physical Changes in Your Brain Structures 

An interesting finding suggests that when we learn new skills such as a musical instrument or a new language, it creates physical changes in our brain. This is because these activities are similar to exercising for our brain. 

These findings have been suggested through studies that have used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), where scientists are enabled to visualise these changes by comparing visuals before and after learning takes place. 

This means that, when we learn new skills, it does not just lead to increased blood flow in special brain areas, but also structural changes in the white and grey matter, changes considered to be long-lasting!

Memory

Memory is our brain’s ability to hold past information or things happening currently into its system so that it can utilize it in the future, whenever required. Human storage of memory is commendable in nature. It is a result of a long and complex evolution process of the human species.

Types of Memory 

When it comes to understanding different kinds of memories, there has been a heated debate on the classification of memories by experts. One agreed-upon consensus seems to be the acceptance of the existence of three types of memory, while the other types of memories fall under these three categories. 

Another way to classify memories is to think about them in terms of stages and processes. Experts who tend to categorise memory into explicit memory and implicit memory assert that sensory memory, short term memory, and long term memory are stages of memory and not categories or types of memory. 

Sensory Memory 

Sensory memory stores information received by the senses after they have received the stimulation. Experts who believe in stages of memory instead of categorization of memory claim that the formation of all memories begins with the information being stored in sensory memory. 

Sensory memory is very brief, holding information only for a few seconds. Recalling the sensation of touch, or a sound you heard while walking is an example of sensory memory. 

When a sensation is continuously recurring, you begin to expand on it by attaching other memories to it. This is when the sensory memory is transformed into your short-term memory. More rehearsal can shift it to your long-term memory. 

The types of sensory memory are: Iconic memory obtains information through sight. It lasts for just 1 second. Echoic memory deals with information that is auditory in nature and lasts for about 1 to 2 seconds. Haptic memory deals with memories of touch sensations and lasts for approximately 2 seconds long.

Short-term Memory 

Short-term memory lasts for brief periods of time. It is not as short as sensory memory, but it is not as permanent as long-term memory either. Another name for short-term me, or is primary or active memory. 

According to Miller (1956), adults can hold upto 5 to 9 items in their short-term memory. It is usually believed that the short-term capacity of humans is around 7 plus or minus 2 items.

Short-term memory can last from about 20 to 30 seconds or less according to the Information-Processing Model of Memory put forth by Atkinson and Shiffrin (1968). This model is also known as the Multi-Store Memory Model.

Memories from short-term memory can be transformed into long-term memories by rehearsal. This means simply repeating the information to yourself several times. Another way to move information into the long-term is by elaborating the information and making it personally meaningful by entailing deeper processing of the information in question. 

Working memory is considered to be the fourth distinct kind of memory by some experts, while others are of the view that working memory and short-term memory can be used interchangeably.

Long-term Memory

The majority of our knowledge is stored in long-term memory. Generally, any information that can be recollected after 30 seconds is considered to be a long-term memory. 

There is no limit on how much information can be stored in the long-term memory and how long it will remain there. Long-term Memory can be of two types: explicit and implicit long-term memory. 

Explicit Long-term Memory 

The memories that we consciously store and take time to memorise and form are known as explicit memories. This can include remembering your phone number, your friend’s birthday, childhood events, academic information, etc. 

There are two types of explicit memory: Episodic Memory, which contains information about your life events, for example, when you received your first A grade in school.

Semantic Memory holds information about general knowledge and facts that you have acquired over the years. 

Implicit Long-term Memory 

Explicit memories are not the only memories that we form and use. Implicit memories are formed without any conscious awareness. It also tends to influence how we behave and think. 

Implicit memories involve the learning of motor skills like walking, riding a bike, or writing. Thus, even if you ride a bike after 10 years, you will still remember it with the help of implicit memory.

Parts of the Brain that Process Memories

Below, we discuss what part of the brain plays what role in the formation and storage of memories.

Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is involved in the storage of short-term memory. It functions from both the left and the right sides to collectively work on short-term working memory.

Neocortex

This area of the brain helps in processing information. It is involved in reasoning and learning as it is a part of the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain helps in the storage of explicit memories in the hippocampus for enabling reasoning and logic.

Basal Ganglia

This part of the brain functions in maintaining implicit and involuntary learning from the information given by the brain.

Amygdala

The amygdala is majorly responsible for the formation of emotional memories. Since the amygdala is closer to the hippocampus and is known to have shared connections, the two work together for the formation of memories that are more memorable.

Since the amygdala attributes emotions to cognitive processes, it also includes memories. Thus, the more emotions the memory invokes, the better it is remembered. 

For instance, when the mother gives birth to her child, the entire process is remembered in clear detail because it has highly positive emotions attached to the experience. Whereas, everyday mundane tasks that do not invoke emotional attachment are usually forgotten.

The amygdala stores good and bad memories, but is involved especially in storing emotional traumas. This is when the functions of the amygdala in memory formation can be detrimental as emotional traumas are difficult to overcome. The emotions attached to those traumas make it especially difficult for them to get weak.

In fact, people who have been victims of emotional trauma can also find it affecting their cognitive reasoning, this is because the amygdala is also connected to the prefrontal cortex.

Emotional memories are generally stored in the synapses between the neurons in the brain. There is evidence which claims that multiple neuromodulators in the amygdala mediate emotional memory formation (Tang et al., 2020). These neural connections have the emotion of fear embedded in them.

Hippocampus

The hippocampus is the most essential area of the brain in terms of the creation and storage of long-term episodic memories. It is also involved in short-term memory. Damage to the hippocampus can greatly affect the formation of newer memories and storing them.

Conclusion 

This article answered the question, “how does the brain store data?” and also covered what memory is, the different types of memory, as well as the brain areas involved in the processing, formation, and maintenance of memories. The article also answers some frequently asked questions about memory in the end.

Frequently Asked Questions: How Does The Brain Store Data?

What is affected by Alzheimer’s disease?

Explicit memories are hugely affected by Alzheimer’s disease. 

What are the three basic functions of memory?

The three basic functions of memory include encoding, storing, and retrieving information. 

Do we forget what we read?

The forgetting curve shows us that we forget 60% of what we read in about 2 hours of reading it. The curve also shows that information is lost over time when we don’t rehearse it. 

References

Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Chapter: Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In Spence, K. W., & Spence, J. T. The psychology of learning and motivation (Volume 2). New York: Academic Press. pp. 89–195.

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Millar, A.G. (1956). “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information”. Psychological Review. 101 (2): 343–35. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.101.2.343. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-002C-4646-B. PMID 8022966.

Baddeley, A.D. (November 1966). “Short-term memory for word sequences as a function of acoustic, semantic and formal similarity” (PDF). Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 18 (4): 362–5. doi:10.1080/14640746608400055. PMID 5956080.

Gobet, F.; Lane, P.; Croker, S.; Cheng, P.; Jones, G.; Oliver, I.; Pine, J. (2001). “Chunking mechanisms in human learning”. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 5 (6): 236–243. doi:10.1016/s1364-6613(00)01662-4. ISSN 1364-6613. PMID 11390294.

Oztekin, I.; McElree, B. (2010). “Relationship between measures of working memory capacity and the time course of short-term memory retrieval and interference resolution”. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 36 (2): 383–97. doi:10.1037/a0018029. PMC 2872513.

Tang, W., Kochubey, O., Kintscher, M., & Schneggenburger, R. (2020). A VTA to basal amygdala dopamine projection contributes to signal salient somatosensory events during fear learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 40(20), 3969-3980.

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