Memory Introduction [Key Stages 3 & 4]
How does the brain remember?
Ask the audience to put their hands up and tell you one memory they have from yesterday.
Introduction to memory: Your brain processes your experiences and important perceptions, facts and skills are stored in your memory while the rest is discarded. Memories are formed by electrochemical signals between neurons causing them to connect into a network. The more often that network gets used (for instance, the more you practice something) the stronger it will get, leading to long-term memory.
Scientists think there are two main types of memory: short-term and long-term. The memories you have in short-term memory tend to be information that you only get once or only need briefly and they are very quickly forgotten. Memories in long-term memory are stored for a much longer time, sometimes for the rest of your life, and you can access those memories again and again.
Q: How do we know there are two types of memory?
A: We know there are two types of memory from studying patients who have different types of amnesia – some patients have difficulty remembering the distant past but can remember new things while others can’t remember new things but do remember the distant past.
Short Term Memory [Key Stages 1-4]
How many things can you keep in short-term memory?
Materials: Paper & pencil for each member of the audience. Alternatively, break the audience into small groups and give one person in each group a pen and piece of paper to write down the group’s responses.
Warn the audience that you are going to show them a number of different objects and you want them to remember as many as they can. Show this picture of 12 objects for 10 seconds then remove Image 1 in the gallery below).
Stop and ask each person/group to remember as many of the different items that came up as possible in a 30 second period.
When the clock finishes tell everyone to stop and ask each group how many they got.
Overall, most people can remember about 5-9 things in their short term memory but not usually many more unless they are using special tricks.
Q: Why did some people/groups remember more than others?
A: Everybody has a similar storage capacity in short-term memory (7 plus or minus 2 items). Some people can remember more because they use special tricks and concentrate especially hard. Some groups might remember more if they have more people in them so there’s less for them each to keep in mind.
Q: Where in the brain do we store short term memories?
A: Short term memories are stored in the Prefrontal Cortex which is at the front of the Frontal Lobes.
Chunking [Key Stages 2-4]
Is there any way of increasing the number of things you can keep in short term memory?
With the audience still in their small groups (or as individuals) explain that although there is a limit to the number of things we can keep in short-term memory, sometimes we can cheat a little bit by making each of those things bigger. This is called ‘chunking’ – instead of remembering 3 objects from the list, we could remember 3 stories, each having a number of the objects in them.
Show them Image 2 in the Image Gallery below and tell a story about each row of objects. It can be anything you like (and doesn’t have to be good). Possibly something along the following lines:
Row 1: I was eating donuts and watching a TV program about using reindeer for target practice when the guy accidentally shot a cow.
Row 2: A rat was eating my birthday cake and drinking the milk but my pet lobster climbed out of the fish-tank and chased it into the mouse-trap.
Row 3: My mum decided to cut my hear so she sat me in our big armchair and combed it out then cut a chunk off but it looked so bad she ended up giving me a top hat to hide it.
Row 4: For my birthday I got to lie in bed late and then open my present and go to the circus where we saw the clowns and the dancing bears and elephants.
Q: Why did chunking the objects into stories help you to remember more?
A: Because the brain remembered three stories that involved multiple objects so each of the objects in each story were remembered for ‘free’. Short term memory seems to have a limit for how many things it stores but it doesn’t seem to matter how complex those things are.
What do we remember best? [Key Stage 1-4]
Do you think some things are easier to remember than others?
Get one person to come up out of the audience and ask them to remember as many things as they can after watching the following video. As they respond, mark down the items that they recall on the following list.
Stop the video at 2:59 if you would like your audience to have at go at finding out how many they recalled.List of things to check off large pound coin molecular structure human skull panda bear hose 2 dice broom santa hat football hard hat bucket leaf blower kettle video camera truck mirror juggling balls alarm clock globe tyre member of the audience
Most people will probably have remembered items from the beginning and end. This is because the first items are encoded better because there is no confusion with other things at the start. The items at the end are also remembered because they are more recent and there are no other items in the list to confuse them with.
People also tend to remember the unusual things because they really stand out. Unusual things create a unique pattern in the brain. Items that are very similar are forgotten because they have activated the same neural patterns in your brain.
Q: What sorts of things are remembered best?
A: Things that occur at the beginning and end of a list and things that are unusual are remembered best.
Q: How long does short term memory last?
A: Unless you keep repeating the information so that it stays in your short-term memory, it will only last about 20 seconds and will then be forgotten.
Long-term memory: The Hippocampus [Key Stages 2-4]
If short-term memories are kept in the prefrontal cortex, where are long-term memories kept?
[Diagram of the brain with different memory centres labelled]
Explain that long-term memory is stored in different parts of the brain from short-term memory and encoded in a different way so that you can access them again even after delays and interruptions.
This is the Hippocampus, where spatial memories are kept. Long-term memories are patterns of neuronal activity, stored in the hippocampus which is found in the temporal lobes.
We have two hippocampi, one in each half of the brain. Throughout our life, the hippocampi store memories and skills, especially those related to finding your way around your environment. This is the one region of the brain where you can actually grow new brain cells. One study showed that London taxi drivers, who have to learn their way around London by the shortest routes, have more activity in this region compared to average drivers because of all the extra information they have to remember (all the roads in London).
Q: Why do London taxi-drivers have more active hippocampi than other people?
A: Because London taxi-drivers have to remember so many different roads in London they grow more connections in their hippocampi to store all that information
Q: How do you think information gets into long-term memory?
A: Information can get into long-term memory in a variety of ways – either by experiencing an event or action many times (like when you practice or train), if something is especially shocking or memorable or because the brain considers it to be especially important.
The label ‘hippocampus’ comes from the Greek for ‘sea-horse’ because that’s what early brain scientists thought it looked like.
Ancient Greek picture of a seahorse
The human hippocampus
Autobiographical and Flashbulb Memory [Key Stages 2-4]
Are all the memories in long-term memory things that are practiced or experienced again and again?
Ask some of the audience members what their earliest memory is. Then ask the whole audience to put up their hands if their earliest memory is from when they were 5…4….3 years old etc. Hands will gradually go down. Ask a couple of those left what their earlist memories were.
Explain that very few people can really remember anything before the age of 3. Some long-term memories are built up through lots of repetition – like learning to play a musical instrument – while others are directly stamped onto your brains. These memories are often important episodes that punctuate our lives. If you have a special occasion or an unexpected surprise it can leave a lasting impression on your personal or emotional history, which is why they are sometimes called “autobiographical” memories.
Other memories, especially those for intense emotional events can be very vivid. These are “flashbulb” memories – like a photograph taken with a flash. The emotional centres of the brain can supercharge the hippocampus so that the patterns are stored more strongly. People’s earliest memories are often of this sort.
Q: What sort of event might create a ‘flashbulb’ memory?
A: Events that are very surprising or emotionally important might create a flashbulb memory. For instance, your first memory might be of your parents bringing your little brother or sister home, or of a surprise birthday party when you were young.
Q: If babies can learn why don’t we remember what it is like to be a baby?
A: Part of the reason is because your brain is immature so networks for memory might be changing very fast. Another reason is because babies don’t yet really understand the world around them so they cannot put their memories into a memorable order yet.
Super-Memorizers [Key Stages 2-4]
Why can some people remember more than others?
Some people can learn to remember many more things than normal people because they use special tricks. Watch the following video of Dominic the Super-Memorizer. Before they sat down, Dominic asked all the audience members in this section to write their name and birthday down on the back of a playing card. He then collected and read all the playing cards and remembered all the information. This is how he knows what each person’s birthday and name is when their card is called out.
Ask the audience how they think he remembered so many things. Now watch the following video where Dominic explains how he does it.
This is how the memory expert Dominic O’Brien performed his amazing feat. Dominic was linking the information he had to a journey he knows very well. Tell the audience that they can do this as well.
Tell the audience, as an example, that if they had to remember a shopping list then they could imagine what their bedroom was like in their mind and link all the items to it in a bizarre way. For example, if they had to remember bacon, eggs, potatoes, ice-cream….etc they would simply visualize each item as part of their bedroom. The curtains could be strips of bacon, the alarms clock could be a large egg with hands, the light switch on the lamp could have a potato hanging from it.
The more bizarre the better. When it comes to remembering the list you simply have to walk around the mental picture in your head and the bizarre associations will spring to mind.
Q: Why does imagining the different things you have to remember along a familiar path help to remember them?
A: Imagining different things you have to remember along a familiar path probably helps you remember them for three reasons. First, you are thinking about them more in order to imagine them, which probably helps reinforce their memory trace in your brain. Second, the image you create is very unusual, so it will be remembered better. Last, you know what the landmarks along that path really well so you have a way of connecting all the things on the list together and knowing if you’ve left one out.
Mnemonics [Key Stages 2-4]
Are there any other tricks for remembering more things?
Tell the audience that another good way to remember a list of things is to use a mnemonic. Mnemonics is a way of encoding information in a more meaningful way. Often, its making up a sentence using the first letter of every item on the list or every letter in a difficult word.
Give them an example and then ask if anyone else has a mnemonic that they know. For instance, a mnemonic for remembering how to spell the word mnemonic is:
E.g. For remembering the musical scale: Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit
For remembering the colours of the rainbow: Ripping Out Your Granny’s Brain is Vicious
There are lots of tricks for remembering more things!
Q: What else might mnemonics be useful for?
A: Mnemonics are useful for remembering complicated spellings of words, the order of things in a list and rules that are difficult to remember. Companies often abbreviate their names into mnemonics or acronyms so that they are catchier and easier to remember.
Q: Why do we remember mnemonics easier than the original word or list?
A: Mnemonics stick in our mind because they are very unusual and because they string together into a coherent sentence. That way, all your brain has to do is remember one sentence instead of a list of different things that don’t naturally go together.
Memory Illusions [Key Stages 2-4]
Do you always remember things exactly as they happened?
Read out the following list of words quite slowly:
Thread – pin – eye – sewing – sharp – point – thimble – haystack – thorn – hurt – injection – syringe – cloth –knitting
After a pause, ask the audience to put their hands up if you said the word ‘Elephant’, what about the word ‘Banana’? How about the word ‘Needle’? Most people hands will go up when you say ‘Needle’.
Show them a list of the words you read out to prove that needle wasn’t one of them.
Explain that memory doesn’t just store information coming in. In fact memories are much more active & fluid, like a story being re-told. Every time you have to remember something you have to reconstruct it – build it together back from the fragments of information stored in the neural networks of your memory.
The reason many of them had the memory for needle is because the pattern for the word needle was triggered by all the other words which were associated with it. By using these similar words we were able to plant a false memory. So memory cant always be trusted.
Q: What is deja-vu?
A: Emotions and memories are linked so when you remember something it is normally accompanied by a feeling of familiarity. If you have that sense of familiarity for something that you don’t remember this leads to a feeling of deja-vu.
Q: What do these sorts of memory mistakes tell us about memory?
A: These sorts of memory mistakes tell us that the memory is not a straightforward recording of a perception or an event. Rather, the brain is constantly interpreting the world and building models based on the information it has available and its expectations about how things ought to be.