Memory is the ability to encode, store and recall information. The three main processes involved in human memory are therefore encoding, storage and recall (retrieval). Additionally, the process of memory consolidation (which can be considered to be either part of the encoding process or the storage process) is treated here as a separate process in its own right.
Encoding is a biological event beginning with perception through the senses. The process of laying down a memory begins with attention (regulated by the thalamus and the frontal lobe), in which a memorable event causes neurons to fire more frequently, making the experience more intense and increasing the likelihood that the event is encoded as a memory. Emotion tends to increase attention, and the emotional element of an event is processed on an unconscious pathway in the brain leading to the amygdala. Only then are the actual sensations derived from an event processed.
Consolidation is the processes of stabilizing a memory trace after the initial acquisition. It may perhaps be thought of part of the process of encoding or of storage, or it may be considered as a memory process in its own right. It is usually considered to consist of two specific processes, synaptic consolidation (which occurs within the first few hours after learning or encoding) and system consolidation (where hippocampus-dependent memories become independent of the hippocampus over a period of weeks to years.
Storage is the more or less passive process of retaining information in the brain, whether in the sensory memory, the short-term memory or the more permanent long-term memory. Each of these different stages of human memory function as a sort of filter that helps to protect us from the flood of information that confront us on a daily basis, avoiding an overload of information and helping to keep us sane. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to be retained in long-term memory (which is why, for example, studying helps people to perform better on tests). This process of consolidation, the stabilizing of a memory trace after its initial acquisition, is treated in more detail in a separate section.
Recall or retrieval of memory refers to the subsequent re-accessing of events or information from the past, which have been previously encoded and stored in the brain. In common parlance, it is known as remembering. During recall, the brain “replays” a pattern of neural activity that was originally generated in response to a particular event, echoing the brain’s perception of the real event. In fact, there is no real solid distinction between the act of remembering and the act of thinking.
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