Memory is a fascinating topic of psychological research, and the development of the science of memory has had an enormous impact on scientific understanding of the brain and consciousness. To understand the impact of nostalgia has humans and how you can use this information to your benefit, read on.
Exploring the Science of Memory
One of the most significant innovations in neurological research that has helped scientists develop their understanding of memory is the fMRI machine, which stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging.
These machines measure the activity of the brain by detecting shifts in blood flow. By using highly powerful magnets, the machines detect the iron and metal content of the blood which can determine where blood is flowing most energetically in the brain and where it is not.
By tracking these changes in blood flow while offering various stimuli to the brain, neurologists can detect which areas in the brain are activated during certain activities. Researchers use this information when exploring the memory and the differences between the way different memories are accessed within the brain.
How Human Memory Works
So, how does human memory work in the brain? Well, it’s a very complex process. There are a group of systems within the brain that play a role in remembering information, and three steps are involved in the process: creating memories, storing them, and recalling them.1
When you take in a new piece of information, these various systems become activated and help you form a cohesive understanding of what just happened. In the past, scientists would compare memories to a tiny filing cabinet. The idea was that memories were stored somewhere in the brain to be retrieved later.
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Now, research has shown that memory is much more complex than that. Instead of having a central “filing cabinet,” the memory is more like a web with information scattered throughout different areas of the brain.
Different Types of Memory
There are a variety of categories associated with the memory including long and short-term memories; explicit, implicit, and autobiographical memories; prospective and retrospective memories; and flashbulb or episodic memories.2
Short-Term and Long-Term Memory
Research on memory has been going on for years, but in recent times, some fascinating discoveries have been made. From the very beginning, though, psychologists distinguished between short-term and long-term memories.
Short-term memory refers to the kind of memory individuals use when they memorize a phone number or when they asked to recall what they purchased after leaving the store with a friend.
There is a part of the brain that encodes these most recent events so that humans can easily function from moment-to-moment, keeping track of the information that has been taken in just a moment before.
Long-term memory refers to any memory of something that occurred at least four hours prior to the present moment. This is a broad category that can include everything from the memory of how to change a flat tire to a memory of prom night.
Explicit Memory, Implicit Memory, and Autobiographical Memory
Psychologists have identified three different categories of long-term memory. Explicit memories are the direct memories of information like a childhood address or facts that read in a book.
Implicit memories include information that doesn’t have to be consciously recalled in order to be remembered. For example, the way you remember how to tie your shoes, ride your bike, or even how to walk. Implicit memories are stored in a separate part of the brain from other kinds of long-term memory.
Another category of long-term memory is autobiographical memory. This memory type references the ongoing narrative of an individual. These types of memories are highly influenced by mood. For instance, if you are at a holiday party at home enjoying yourself and reminiscing about times past, you may very well describe your childhood as very positive. But if you are feeling disconnected from your family and are far from home, you may describe our childhood as disjointed and uncomfortable.
The Role of Autobiographical Memory
Autobiographical memory can have a significant impact on overall well being. The better of a perspective an individual has on life, the more likely it is that they will have a positive future. The understanding of what has happened in the past and how that informs the present and future is an essential part of understanding day-to-day life.
Individuals who are able to incorporate a positive and uplifting understanding of their past into their present and future are generally more motivated and content in their lives. It is not a requirement to have had a happy childhood, either.
In fact, research has shown that even being nostalgic about bittersweet memories can have positive psychological benefits. When you reflect on difficult times and are able to draw perspective between then and now, you can still receive a boost of positivity.
Prospective and Retrospective Memory
There is another crucial distinction when it comes to the science of memory: the difference between prospective and retrospective memory.3 Not only do individuals recall what has happened in the past, but it’s also important to remember things about the future.
When you think about things that have already happened and reflect upon them, you are experiencing retrospective memory. Retrospective memory helps individuals understand what experiences and embed those into an arc of understanding about their personal story. Therefore, these memories are especially important for developing a sense of self.
Prospective memory plays a very different role, but it is just as important. Prospective memory is the ability to remember what you have planned to do in the future. For instance, you engage with your prospective memory when you are packing our bags for the day and reviewing what you will need to bring with us and what can stay behind.
The Importance of Prospective Memory
Prospective memory plays a vital role in the ability of an individual to be a high-functioning, productive adult. It is also integral for the ability to execute ideas, express creativity, and achieve goals—all of these factors make it essential for overall well-being.
There are three main ways to trigger prospective memory: time-based cues, event-based cues, or activity-based cues. For example, if we have a dentist appointment at 2:45 p.m., seeing the clock read 2:15 might alert you that it’s time to prepare for the appointment. On the other hand, you might receive a text alert from an online calendar, an event-based cue.
An activity-based cue triggers prospective memory when you interact with the world around you. For example, running into your dental hygienist at the supermarket and remembering you need to schedule an appointment would be an activity-based cue.
When you have a powerful prospective memory, you are able to consistently and competently perform tasks without procrastination or distraction. Individuals with high functioning prospective memories have clear dreams, goals, plans, and aspirations.
Developing Your Prospective Memory
One fascinating fact that neuroscientists have discovered about prospective memory is that humans use the same areas in the brain when they think about prospective and retrospective memories.4 In short, individuals use the same area to think about the past and future.
This has the fascinating implication that improving recall of memories in the past could very well assist in visualizing the future. Research has also indicated that there are many positive benefits to cultivating nostalgia, even of bittersweet moments in the past. When you allow yourself to dive into the memories stored within, we may very well reactivate the pathways you need to imagine a positive future.
This would align well with the research that has shown when individuals are nostalgic often, they can increase motivation in order to achieve goals and enhance productivity. This may also be why therapeutic techniques like psychoanalysis that instigate a review of the past have been beneficial to many.
Prospective Memory and Working Memory
After an individual has ignited prospective memory through positive imagination into the future, they then have the opportunity to improve working memory, which is essentially short-term memory. In short, working memory is the ability to remember tasks you have to accomplish, places you have to be, and what you want or need to say within a short time frame.
There are a variety of brain games and other techniques and tools individuals use to improve their working memory. Research has shown that when you sharpen your prospective memory both by remembering events from your past and remembering happenings in your future, you are able to increase your productivity levels and overall satisfaction in life.
This is a great way to harness the new information being developed through the science of memory in order to improve your life. By understanding the vital role prospective memory plays in your life and discovering ways to improve it, you can also increase your happiness.
Episodic Memory, Source Memory, and Flashbulb Memory
These kinds of memories are similar to autobiographical memories, but they tend to be more specific. For example, if you are describing your memories from high school, you might say that you played football, participated in the school play, or hated math. These would all be considered autobiographical memories.
Episodic memories would refer to a more specific moment or event in time. For instance, if you described what you wore to your prom, what songs you danced to, and other specific details of the night itself. This kind of memory is sometimes called source memory because it typically involves referencing a specific source to retrieve the memory.
Flashbulb memories are similar but tend to refer directly to the idea that individuals basically have photographs in their heads reminding them of specific events during the day. Episodic or flashbulb memories are the kinds of memories that decline most rapidly with age. By the time individuals are in their 50s, they are probably losing some portion of episodic memories. By the 70s, there can be an even more rapid decline.
Scientists are not completely sure why this is, but one potential reason is that individuals have simply had so many experiences by the time that they are in our 70s that it can be difficult to keep them all within the brain.
The brain is constantly changing and reorganizing as humans take in new information. As humans age, this ability to store new data begins to decline and is one of the potential reasons why memories can become damaged with age.
Sleep and Memory
Another factor that plays a major role in the ability to have a great memory is the amount of sleep an individual receives each night. In fact, it’s not only the number of hours you spend in bed, but it’s also a matter of how deeply you sleep.
It turns out that when individuals don’t get the shut-eye the body requires, there can be a major decline in nearly every aspect of memory. This can affect long-term, short-term, and even procedural memory.
However, there are many ways of getting a good night’s rest. For instance, it’s important to develop a calm and peaceful bedtime routine and eliminate distractions from your bedroom. Changes, like turning your cell phone off or using an aromatherapy diffuser, can help you cultivate the space you need for a good night’s rest. It’s one of the most powerful changes you make to improve your memory.
Memory and Depression
There is another condition that can make it very difficult for your brain to function normally: depression.5 The brain dysfunction caused by depression can also have a profound effect on your memory. Scientists are now recognizing that the impact depression has on memory is stronger than they previously thought. Some are even calling the condition “pseudo-dementia.”
This is because almost every aspect of memory is affected when an individual is depressed. Researchers recognized that individuals who are experiencing depression see an overall decline in cognitive abilities. They often cannot keep track of things and have difficulty completing tasks or remembering why they are performing certain tasks.
Having depression can also make it challenging to create new memories. Some individuals with depression find it difficult to be present and aware of their surroundings and can become challenged when asked to recall events that happened recently. This can be one of the reasons individuals with depression have difficulty being productive at work or keeping up with their daily chores and tasks.
Understanding the different kinds of memory and the ways that they can impact your overall well-being is an essential aspect of your health. The research has shown that when individuals have a high-functioning memory, many other aspects of life can improve. Recent research into nostalgia has continued to prove this point. When individuals reflect upon the past, they can experience a wide range of benefits.
One of the most potent ways nostalgia can help is by reminding individuals of their connections with others. Sometimes, you may find yourself in situations where you feel distant or not able to directly communicate with the people you love. In these situations, nostalgia can be helpful. By thinking about a positive memory, you can recall that you have had close connections before and can be hopeful about rekindling them in the future.
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