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Blue Sky Science: How does your brain form memories?

Lily Alderman

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How does your brain form memories?

The first step in forming a memory is called encoding, and encoding starts with perception. If you remember back to the first time you met your best friend, you encoded or perceived a lot of information about them.

When you first saw your friend, information from your eyes went to the visual cortex of the brain, which is in the occipital lobe at the very back of the brain. If your friend said their name or giggled, that auditory information would go to the auditory cortex, the area of the brain around the ears.

All different types of information that you perceive go to different parts of the brain.

After the brain perceives all that information, it travels to an area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus integrates all that information and forms a memory. It also decides whether you need to remember this information for now or for later.

Memories are really complex because they can contain all different types of information: visual information, auditory information, or tactile information such as touch. The best way to remember something is to have multiple kinds of information associated with it.

Many of us think of memories as a photo or snapshot stored in our brains that we just retrieve over and over again. But it turns out memories are much more dynamic than a photograph.
Every time we recall a memory, we incorporate new information and actually change that memory. So memory is not just like a photograph we store in the mind, it’s something that’s changing every time we access it.

About Blue Sky Science

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research. The questions are primarily posed by visitors attending Discovery Building events.

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