Mental Health - Memory

Memory is one of the most important functions of the brain. Whether people realize it or not, their memories define who they are. Without them,


Self-esteem refers to how an individual feels about him- or herself. Does someone view himself as a good person, worthy of good things? If he does, he probably has healthy selfesteem. If an individual views himself as flawed and unworthy of praise or the respect of others, he probably has low self-esteem.

Self-esteem motivates people's actions as well as the decisions they make. Individuals with positive self-esteem are likely to believe that they measure up to others sufficiently. They are more likely to have the confidence to pursue different accomplishments, whether it is trying to do well on a test, trying out for a sports team, answering a question in class, or applying for a job. These individuals are not overly afraid of failure; they realize that failure is a natural part of life and whether they fail or succeed at something does not indicate their overall worth and ability as a person.

People with low self-esteem, however, are less likely to try their best at anything. They are so certain they will fail that they approach tasks and challenges with so much anxiety (worry or fear) that they are unable to concentrate. They are so afraid of failure (which, in their eyes, will only serve to confirm their lack of worth and ability) that they may not even try at all, finding it easier to believe that they may have succeeded had they really tried.

A strong sense of self and positive self-esteem can help prevent people from engaging in risky behavior or putting themselves in dangerous situations. These people know that, like all people, they deserve good things and that, regardless of one failure, success will come in the future in some way, shape, or form.

There are several factors that influence selfesteem. These include:

Age: Self-esteem tends to grow steadily up until middle school, which may be due to the transition of moving from the familiar environment of elementary school to a new setting with new demands. Self-esteem will either continue to grow after this period or begin to plummet.

Gender: Girls tend to be more susceptible to having low self-esteem than boys, perhaps because of increased social pressures that emphasize appearance rather than intelligence or athletic ability.

Socioeconomic status: Researchers have found that children from higher-income families usually have a better sense of self-esteem in the mid- to late-adolescence years.

people would not know where they came from, what they have experienced, or who their families and friends are. Memories are unique to each person. While many people may witness or experience the same event, each person will remember it differently. This is why memory is considered part of a person's complex personality.

Many scientists know what memory is, but they still don't know exactly how it works. Memory is defined as the ability to acquire information, store it, and then retrieve it later. It affects every aspect of people's daily lives. People have memories about facts, such as their names and phone numbers and birth dates. They also have memories about past events, such as graduation from high school, getting married, or the death of a loved one. In addition, memories of certain skills, such as how to talk, walk, cook, or play a sport exist in abundance. Still other memories seem to be instinctive. For example, people remember how to sleep, breathe, and digest food. These are just a few examples of what memory can do and how it helps people learn and live.

Different Kinds of Memory

Types of memory fall into two categories, or systems, in the brain. One system deals with fact knowledge, such as names and dates. The other system deals with skill. While scientists know these systems are separate, they think that the systems share with one another. What scientists do not know is how much they share and how closely they are connected.

Fact knowledge is usually referred to as short-term memory. Short-term memories can become long-term if the circumstances are right. Again, scientists are still unclear as to exactly how this works; however, they think that short-term memories do not last long because new information enters the part of the brain that stores short-term memories and then drives out older memories. If a short-term memory passes into the long-term memory, it has more staying power. It lasts longer and can eventually become permanent. The longer a memory lasts, the stronger it is and the less likely it will be forgotten. This happens because short-term memories are fragile, while long-term memories are sturdy. Some scientists believe that long-term memories are stored permanently because of chemical changes in the brain.

Other scientists do not categorize memories in terms of length. They believe that the length of a memory depends on certain circumstances; however, they do not know which circumstances produce long-term memories and which produce short-term memories. One thing scientists agree on, however, is the fact that the brain seems to have an unlimited capacity to store memories. Scientists continue to study how people store and retrieve memories and why, if they have an unlimited capacity to remember information, people forget.

How People Remember and Why People Forget

When memories are stored in the brain, they cannot serve people unless they are retrieved. How do people retrieve memories? This usually happens when memories are challenged. For example, if someone asks a question, a person must attempt to retrieve information in order to answer the question. Sometimes the answer is easy; other times, a person takes time to answer it. The amount of time it takes to answer the question is connected to a person's awareness of what memories are stored. Sometimes a person is not aware at the time that he or she knows the answer, but later realizes that the information is there, ready to be retrieved. Sometimes, a smell or a sound can trigger a memory that a person did not know was there.


For unknown reasons, some people have a better ability to remember information than others. Ancient civilizations were able to maintain their history through an oral (spoken) tradition. Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey were passed down through generations by word of mouth. It is believed that people's memories may have been stronger out of necessity. Because preliterate civilizations could not write, they were forced to remember things orally. When literacy (the ability to read or write) was developed, the need for oral stories diminished, which may explain why fewer people permanently store large amounts of information.

Some people have what is called eidetic imagery, or photographic memory, which enables them to take a picture of information and then use that picture to retrieve the information later. This picture is not just stored by sight. It can also be recorded through sound, taste, and smell. For example, a musician may be able to hear a song, and, without writing anything down, play back the song note for note. This type of memory is found more often in children than in adults. However, many people who have this ability as children often lose it as they grow older. Scientists do not know why some people have a photographic memory or why they eventually lose it.

There have been studies done, however, which reveal how too much memory can be harmful to a person. In the 1950s, a Russian man named Solomon V. Shereshevskii had the remarkable ability to remember an enormous amount of information. He was a reporter who was able to research and produce his stories without ever writing anything down. Shereshevskii eventually toured the world showing off his amazing ability to remember everything for an unlimited amount of time. Eventually, however, Shereshevskii's memory became an immense burden. Because he remembered so much information, he could not control his memories or when they surfaced. In the middle of conversations, he would be reminded of other events and facts until he could no longer concentrate on the conversation. He began to rant and rave like a madman. For the man who remembered everything, his greatest wish was to be able to forget.

Retrieving a memory involves finding the path that leads to the information and navigating that path. As more and more memories are stored from new experiences, those paths can become intertwined, making it more difficult to find the way back. It can become particularly difficult when stored information has similar meaning because a person will have trouble making distinctions between memories. For example, if a person has seen hundreds of movies, it may become difficult for the person to recall the details of each one. The person may mix together certain parts or lines from different movies or may even confuse the actors involved in the movies.

Some people have trouble retrieving a memory, but eventually manage to do it. However, sometimes a memory cannot be retrieved at all. Does this mean that the information has disappeared forever? Scientists believe that as people search for a particular memory, such as the name of a childhood friend for example, they are actively retracing the path to find the original information that was stored years ago. If they make it there, the memory is retrieved. However, if people cannot seem to make it back on that path, they will never be able to find the memory. Sometimes, though, people will find their way by taking an alternate route. For example, if a person asks a friend a question, and the friend thinks he knows the answer but cannot seem to retrieve the information, he might say something like, "It's on the tip of my tongue!" Then, as he is doing something completely unrelated later in the day, the information might pop into his head. Scientists believe this happens because the brain has found a related item, which then helps the person find the desired information.

Ways to Improve Memory

Some scientists believe the capacity to store information long-term is connected to concentration. Short-term memories can easily become long-term if a person is willing to concentrate on the facts. Lynn Stern, author of Improving Your Memory, says that to make a long-term memory a person must "focus on it exclusively for a minimum of eight seconds." With training, anyone can improve the capacity to remember.

Experts also recommend the following to improve and maintain a good memory:

  • Exercise on a regular basis. Exercise helps keep the blood flowing, which increases the amount of oxygen that reaches the brain. With more oxygen, the brain, and therefore the memory, stays sharp and focused.
  • Manage stress. Stress can affect the body and the mind in negative ways. Emotional disorders such as depression can harm a person's ability to retrieve information.
  • Stay organized. Organization creates order in a person's life. If a person is always losing her keys, her brain is being used to try to find them everyday instead of thinking about more important matters.
  • Use visualization. Visualization means creating an image that corresponds with a fact or an event. If a person is trying to remember a list of groceries, it is helpful to associate a word, such as bread, with its corresponding image.
  • Write it down. Writing things down on paper or on the computer helps people to remember because the act forces them to concentrate on the things they are writing. Concentration, as stated above, is one of the keys to a good memory.

Memory games are fun for young children, and also help develop important connections in the brain. (Photograph by Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications. Reproduced by permission.)
Memory games are fun for young children, and also help develop important connections in the brain. (Photograph by
Robert J. Huffman. Field Mark Publications
. Reproduced by permission.)

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