Memory – Storage – Your Memory

by pre., Friday, December 5th, 2008.

Last loop around the spiral we dived right into systems, tricks and mnemonics, ways to achieve almost immediate gain in pushing information into your memory such that you can recall it. We hope by now you have a rich loci-map full of details, strange events and objects, which you’re wondering through often to remind you of, well, anything and everything. You should have letters associated with each digit and, at least a few times, you’ll have remembered a number (perhaps a bank PIN?) using that mnemonic system. If not, why not? Are you trying? Are you listening to the meditations? Meditating along?

This loop around we’re aiming for more understanding of how your memory works, which should help you to understand why the tricks in the last lap around the spiral work, and indeed how the other techniques you’ll be learning this time work.

How does your memory work?

We don’t know.

Well, that’s not quite true. We have some pretty good clues, some detailed proposals. We understand at least some of the components of the memory system. The models presented here are roughly right, even though many of the details are still not understood.


You likely already know that your brain contains a few neurons. Well, more than a few. Around a hundred billion of ’em in fact. That’s 100,000,000,000. Nearly Fifty a second for your entire life (not to mention the new ones you’re growing each day). They’re all shaped a little like trees. Each one of those has a few (well, okay, mostly over 1,000) dendrites, like the leaves of the tree and an axon, like the trunk which branches at the end to a lot of root-like Axon Terminals too. So inside your brain there are around a hundred trillion (100,000,000,000,000) places where a dendrite (the neuron’s ‘leaves’) and an axon terminal (the neuron’s ‘roots’) meet. If you wanted to count ’em all you’d have to count fifty thousand connections for every second of your life or else you’d end up dead before you finished.

The physiology of these connections, called synapses, is fairly well understood, in more detail than we can possibly go into here. A wave of concentrated ions travels from the tips of the dendrite/leaves down the axon/trunk and into the terminals/roots. This causes tiny molecules known as neurotransmitters to be released at the end of that axon terminal. These drift the unimaginably small distance between there and the next neuron’s dendrite in almost no time at all and there they are attracted to proteins in the wall of a dendrite/leaf in the next neural cell. These proteins in the cell wall are called receptors and when they hit that receptor they encourage yet another wave of concentrated ions to travel along the axon of the next neuron.

Neurons are built so that it takes a certain amount of it’s receptors collecting neurotransmitters before that wave of ion concentration moves down the axon to the next neuron. And this amount, the amount required so that one neuron will pass on a signal to the others it’s wired to, can change.

There are many systems which contribute to this process. Most notably, when a neuron fires lots, it changes so that it will be more easily fired in future. This happens in a few different ways, which together are called long term potentiation, and that allows a neuron to change radically. As this process happens more often (or more extremely), the change in the neuron grows more radically and irrevocably.

This means that the more a connection is used, the lower that threshold will be, the more easily it’ll pass on that signal. Long Term Potentiation, therefore, is the key to how memory works, how learning works. It works by changing the likelihood that one neuron will respond to signals from the thousands of neurons connected to it.


Wiring up these axons between neurons randomly, even allowing that they can grow connections together and form useful bonds, wouldn’t really be terribly useful. Random neurons, even neurons which adapt their synapse connection strengths, do not make a memory system. Thanks to ingenious experimentation science has also developed a broader understanding of how networks of learning neurons are organized to produce the whole memory system.

Information from the senses is collated, analysed, processed and then stored temporarily in a sensory memory. When we say temporarily, we mean less than half a second. After that the next load of data from the senses is coming in and needs the room.

The information representing things which we are paying attention to in sensory memory can be moved, presumably along thousands and thousands of neuron’s axons, to short term memory. Short term memory has axon pathways which loop back into itself, so that if you attend to an item in short term memory you can keep it there indefinitely, but as soon as your attention fades the memory will begin to degrade too. Short term memory is often assumed to work as though you are repeating something over and over to yourself. Like a phone number, which is about as much as people can fit into their short term memories. If you keep repeating it you may be able to keep it in memory, but if you pay attention to something else it quickly fades.

When we talked about the peg system during the last circuit of the spiral you learned that it’s easier to remember things which you can chunk, so it’s easier to remember 0800-ENCODE than the numerical phone number which that represents. This is because the short term memory focuses on chunks like this. It holds a few of them in a working scratch-pad, for quick and easy access.

From short term memory some information can be carried deeper into the memory system, presumably along yet more thousands of axons, and into the dendrites of an even more wide-spread and numerous system of neurons known as the “Long Term Memory”. Unlike the previously described types of memory, long term memory can last for a hundred years or more, a whole lifetime.

On the level of an individual neuron, this could be achieved by wiring the neuron’s own axons and dendrites together. When it fires once, it’s output feeds back into it’s own input so it fires again, driving that process on and on. The event of it firing once makes it fire more often, increasing the amount of long term potentiation from even a single excitation. Indeed we do find neurons with this structure in the cortex.

Factors which help to determine what information passes from short term memory into long term memory include emotional arousal, attention, concentration, importance, repetition and relevance. All these things help to push the neurons involved over their limit and into that changed state where long term potentiation changes that neuron permanently, pushing the information deep into long-term storage.


We have glossed over many, many details in this extremely brief description of your memory system. The best understanding science has to offer is still incomplete, but the systems we have described are better understood than this cursory glance would indicate. The worlds best understanding of these processes explain many features of human memory, and yet also miss enormous amounts of the detail. Our brief description performs even worse. If you read every page we have linked to here, and all the pages that they link to, you’ll begin to have a rough grasp of the rough grasp that our current science has to offer. If you listen to a university level course on these matters you’ll still not grasp all that the real experts do. And even they have gaps in their knowledge.

Yet this understanding is still deep enough that you can begin to use it to help you use your mind more skilfully, to learn to use your memory more efficiently.

Next week we’ll talk about how a long term memory consolidates, and what you can do to help it to do so.

Memory – Storage – Refreshing

by pre., Friday, December 12th, 2008.

Last week we talked a little about the electrochemical processes which can cause an individual neuron to change it’s structure, and how this change is the function from which our memory systems are built.

Spacing Effect

Experiments on human memory recall show what’s known as the spacing effect. That is, human beings remember things for longer if they are repeated in a particular pattern. The pattern isn’t just “Lots of times”, but “lots of times with a particular pattern of spacing between those times”. You can’t learn a fact for your whole life by reading it over and over for a few minutes. This is known as cramming and while it may yet you through tomorrow’s test, it won’t help you remember something for life. For that, you need to read it a few times today, then again next week, then again a month after that. And maybe again six months later. It’s this pattern of gradually increasing spacing between repetitions which Piotr Wozniak has dedicated his life to studing.

Wired Magazine carried a report on him and his work back in April 2008. He has not only built a good model of how this works inside the brain, he’s also developed a computer program to help calculate exactly when the optimum time for the next repetition is.

Essentially this program is a cue-card system. You give it a list of the things you want to remember, and it tests you regularly. Each time you’re tested you tell the system if you were able to recall the answer before being presented with it and the program uses that information to calculate the precise rates of remembering and forgetting your brain experiences for this given fact. From this is calculates when the optimum time for retesting is. It turns out, if you want to remember a fact you need to be tested on it just before you forget it. The software determines when that likely will be, tunes itself for your particular brain, and prompts you at precicely that time.

Supermemo itself, Wozniak’s software, is only available for Windows, and is not free software, however Mnemosyne should work on most operation systems, has the full source-code freely available and redistributable, and is free of charge.

You should certainly be using a system like this if you’re trying to learn a new topic, a new language or are studying a subject. There is no shame in using technology to improve your recall and push you along the path to transcendence.


You now see another reason why the Loci system works, while using extreme and interesting visual imagery helps to initiate Long Term Potentiation (LTP), this is not enough to keep a memory embedded in your mind forever. LTP also decays. You must also refresh those chemical changes often enough to keep them active. By imagining yourself wondering around your Loci map often you refresh your memories, preventing their decay, increasing their stability.


While Supermemo and the like are incredibly useful tools for learning facts, detailed knowledge and new languages etc, they are not too useful for helping you to remember the day to day activities in your life. For this, you need repetition without consciously knowing what things will make good cue cards or will be important months from now.

This month’s meditation isn’t designed to be listened to intensively, every night for weeks on end. It’s designed to be listened to occasionally, perhaps once a week to once a month. It will encourage you to refresh your memories of the things which have happened to you since the last time you used this particular meditation. To refresh the details and events of those memories to ensure that rather than drifting away you reinforce the LTP processes in your neurons and keep your memories fresh and vivid.

Because more than one repetition is needed to keep your memory refreshed, we’ll also encourage you to remember the memories you refreshed last time for a few minutes too. And, indeed, to remember the things which happened during the previous interval too.

Memory – Storage – False Memories

by pre., Friday, December 19th, 2008.

We’ve talked about how your brain changes, the way in which it learns. Forming new memories by selectively strengthening the connections between neurons in your brain using a process called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). Last week we noted that spaced repetition of a memory helps to fix it permanently into place.

This works because memory is constructive, when you remember what your mother looks like you don’t do so in the same way that a video camera or a computer does so: pixel by pixel. Instead connections between more abstract concepts are forged via LTP and then re-traced, excited together in a pattern because they have done so often before. Arrangement of features, expressions, lines and form are literally re-experienced, putting together and re-building the ‘picture’ from past experience. Even the emotions previously attached to that face will be recalled along with a more visual ‘picture’. As each of those neural pathways gets excited once more, the process of potentiation is stepped up once more. The connections are strengthened and so the memory is too.

Which means you know how to keep a memory in storage: Keep accessing that memory, recalling it and re-experiencing the event, at stepped intervals to strengthen the connections and encourage LTP. Recall it vividly and powerfully to activate the pathways strongly. Remember each detail, every minute scrap of information. This month’s meditation guides you through this.

False memory

This system works well, but is far from infallible. Connections which were initially weak may fail to be reactivated at recall and so fade. Connections which weren’t initially present can be activated accidentally by recall and so become melded up with the memory proper. This latter phenomenon produces “False Memories” and now that you understand the process of memory better you should be able to make some guesses at how false memories are likely to occur: Patterns that are normally triggered by similar events are more easily welded into a memory. For instance, last time you were at the park, was there a dog catching a ball? Are you sure? Was it a Labrador? Perhaps you just missed it?

Reading those words will have likely made you think of the last time you were in the park, and also to think about dogs catching balls. Whether or not there actually was one there, connections between these concepts will have been cascading down your neural pathways. You’re probably more likely to think there was a dog there just from the act of being questioned about it.

Repeating associations at spaced intervals makes it more likely to be recalled falsely. If a police-officer asked you repeatedly every few days about “that dog you saw at the park that time, the Labrador, was it catching something?” he’d be slowly increasing the chances that a false memory will be recalled.

Indeed, experiments show that implanting false memories into people is quite easy. The Lost in the mall technique works well for events which are likely, easy to imagine. Techniques for implanting false memories aren’t even participially hard: In conversation, imply the false memory is true to strengthen the connection between the events, all the things in it, and the suggestion. Don’t give conversational space for it to be questioned, just move right on to discussing something else, tangentially related. Repeat a few times, at the right spacing, then ask if it happened. People can quite often be convinced they experienced things which never happened like seeing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

Trusting Your Memory

Knowing this, how much can you trust your own memory?

It’s tempting to think that now you can’t trust your memory as much as you could when you first realized these facts. However, in fact your memory is no less trustworthy now than it was last week, if you can remember that far back. Your appreciation of your memory’s fallibility has increased, but how has the actual effectiveness of your memory storage been affected? The actual effectiveness should have been increased

You know what signs to look for when trying to decide how trustworthy your memory is. You may be able to spot and head off accidentally implanted false memories. You know that for a memory to be accurate it needs to have been rehearsed a few times without guidance or external influence, that repeated questioning from others can use unintentionally loaded language which changes the reliability of your memories. You know to admit your memory is flawed.

Things which make planting of false memories less easy include learning to pay better attention in the first place, expanding you concentration and observational powers. In general, getting feedback from all the other skills in our spiral.

Memory – Storage – Manipulating Memories

by pre., Friday, December 26th, 2008.

Last week we talked about false memories, explaining how experiments show they are most easily created and how this matches with what we know of neurology and the way our brains form connections.

The last point we want to make about memory storage this lap around the spiral is to point out a practical application implied by the existence of false memories and our understanding of how they’re implanted and the neurological system underlying the mechanism: You can manipulate your memories.

Is that wise?

Our own self-experimentation and investigation indicate that in fact deliberately and consciously changing a factual memory is difficult. Trying to reprogram your own mind to think you experienced something you didn’t, or saw or heard something you didn’t, or changing the position you came in some competition, is probably unwise and, in our introspective tests at least, impossibly difficult. The problem is that while you’re trying to associate in the false memory you also associate in the fact of trying to change that memory. You remember trying to change it, and thus what you tried to change it from. You end up reinforcing the truth (or at least your original interpretation) as much as you add the extra association for the false memory. You inevitably think of both during recall.

However even if it were possible to reprogram your factual memory at will, we couldn’t recommend even attempting it for anything other than trivial matters to explore the limits of possibility. A keen and understanding mind is based on good factual recall of the truth, of actual events, and building a house of cards based on deliberate lies will not help you genuinely transcend the personality you randomly acquired anyway. It can only help build delusion.

Changing the emotional content of a memory

It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to factually convince yourself that you didn’t do that utterly embarrassing thing which you have regretted your entire life, or suffer that tragedy which tainted your personality from then on out, or get rejected in that cruel way by that otherwise amazing, towering human being. However it seems that your emotional response to these events is more easily manipulated.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming Practitioners claim good success treading patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by using essentially these false-memory techniques. They have the patient vividly recall the incident, not trying to change the facts, but to watch it as though it was a movie on a screen, a long way away, perhaps with a comedic sound-track playing at the time. In other words to downplay the emotional significance of the events. Essentially to use the same mind patters that you use when you walk out of a movie-theatre, ending your suspension of disbelief.

The emotional system, it seems, it easier to fool than the more factual Declarative Memory system.

Many scientists have argued that Clinical Depression can be exasperated, even caused, by focussing the attention on sad or unlucky events rather than on happy occasions when things went so very right. Neuro-Linguistic-Programmers have claimed good success treating patients with depression though teaching their clients to reduce or change the emotional content of their memories, the events they focus on. Teaching them to re-visualise those memories with different contexts, as a movie or as a small event a long way away, or played with a clown’s slurring trombone comedy soundtrack. This, it seems, changes their emotional response to the memories. They still remember consciously doing it, they remember how the memory used to hurt them, but the actual emotional pain is reduced. They remember reducing it.

In this sense a learned emotional response is different to a declarative, factual memory of an event. While remembering that you changed the facts of an event in your memory suggests to you that you the change is untrustworthy, remembering that you changed your emotional response to a memory intrinsically makes the suggestion that your emotional response should therefore now be improved.

This makes it difficult, even ignoring how unwise it would be, to try and change the factual content of your memory. It also means it’s easier, as well as more useful and helpful, to change the emotional significance of memories. Doing so will help improve your mood, happiness, help you to build an optimistic view on life.


The “Memory/Storage” meditation introduced below is designed to help you to spend a few minutes vividly reviewing the most important events of the last few days. To relive them in as much detail as you can, strengthening the neural pathways which keep that memory vibrant as time goes on. You should do this often, with happy joyous memories you want to treasure forever. However, if you find you have a memory which you can’t help lingering on, which is making you sad or mad or angry or hateful it may be worth not ignoring that memory since it has such a strong hold on your mind but instead changing it’s emotional context. Go through our meditation and keep in mind as you visualize the events to see them a long way away, or on a movie-screen, or with a laugh-track. Change the focus of the memory away from your embarrassment or shame or anger or sadness by replaying them without the emotional significance they once had.

This month’s meditation

This month we present a meditation designed to improve the life of your memories, to keep them vibrant and vivid for longer, to reinforce the neural pathways which help a memory stay in your mind for longer.

You’ll be asked to recall significant events from the last few days, or however long it’s been since you last listened to this meditation. You’ll be asked to visualize those events strongly, vividly, in as much detail as you can and reminded how this works, how it’s fusing the bonds between neurons, increasing Long Term Potentiation and supplying you with suggestions and positive reinforcement to help you hold on to those memories for ever.

Guided Meditation File 11 – Memory – Memory Storage
Backing Music “Wellenreiter” By Klangwuerfel
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