Everyday living may be such a challenge for those with short-term memory loss. But researchers have now demonstrated that memories are rarely absolutely lost—instead they’re just moved to the subconscious.
A functioning working memory — a part of short-term memory that is responsible for immediate processing of information—is critical for decision making and behavior. Without the ability to retain information where it can be quickly accessed, basic cognitive functions become very hard. Remembering the way to a friend's house, for instance, may turn into a bloody hell.
For a working memory to be maintained, researchers have long thought that the neurons associated with a memory must be continuously buzzing. But new neuroscience study published in Science explains that it’s in fact possible for the brain to let a working memory go “dormant,” and then fire it back up when it needs it again. This illuminates a whole new strategy of how the brain processes memories and can probably help in treating people with cognitive problems in the future.
With a tiny jolt of stimulation to the brain, researchers were able to revive the “forgotten” memory.
A team of neuroscientists led by
of the University of Notre Dame presented a group of participants with various stimuli—a face or word—and marked one of them as “important to remember.” While they were flashing the subjects different images, they as well observed their brain activity. During the research the scientists pinpointed the neural activity in each person’s brain that was associated with each visual cue. As participants became more and more distracted with other images, the memory of the image deemed “important” dipped down to a near silent neural pulse—almost as if it was “forgotten.”
With a smallest jolt of stimulation to the brain using an electromagnetic coil, however, researchers succeeded in reviving the “forgotten” memory and bring it back to an active neural state. This means that while subjects may have appeared to temporarily “forget” that specific memory, the brain in fact had stored it in such a way that it could be reactivated and called upon again. Rather than keeping all working memories always active, the brain slows some down to a dormant state—almost like it’s forgotten—only to jump start it later when it needs to recall information.
Ultimately, what the research shows is that short-term memory is a much more layered and dynamic thing than previously believed. But the more neuroscientists unravel the inner workings of memory storage and recollection in the brain, the better positioned we’ll be at understanding human cognition and perhaps reversing memory loss as well.