Brain Science – Episode #14

Memory and learning

why some things stick while others don't

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Mireille and Adam discuss the process of forming memories, the various types of memory, anxieties, phobias, panic attacks, and how our attention and our memory relates to learning. Where you place your attention influences what you might remember. What you are able to remember influences how you feel, the choices you make, and your future outcomes.

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Questions to consider as you listen to this episode:

  1. What is memory?
  2. How does the process of forming memories work?
  3. Types of memory?
  4. How does this relate to learning?
  5. What can I do differently given this understanding of memory?

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I’m curious, Adam - I have a question for you today. I wanna know what is your first memory? Do you remember how old you were, where you were, what pictures or sounds are you able to recollect?

No sounds, but it would have been before 2,5, because my dad passed away, and my memory is the furthest one back that I can think of. And I’ve had other people agree that this could be a memory, so I’ve often wondered if it really is a true memory… And it’s my dad standing at the front door – he’d always take me to work, it was really funny… And all he would really do is just pick me up, put me in the car, we’d go around the block, he’d bring me back home, and that was going to work with dad… But my earliest memory was my dad staying in the doorstep, and that’s really wild to even think about.

I know. I love it. That just makes me smile, thinking of those things… Because I think a lot of people might be curious about why they remember what, and why one thing stands out from another, and sort of how does this whole process of memory work - does it just happen, is it happenstance, or are there actual ways our brain works to do this activity?

Yeah. What about you?

What’s my earliest memory?

[laughs] I love it, mine is a very fun memory, too. I remember – I think I was somewhere around the age of three, and I remember this dress that I was wearing, and part of the reason I’m not sure if it’s in my mind or I just remember the sound… We had a family picture and I was wearing this dress… But I was running down this hallway, and my dress had bells on it, so I can remember the sound of the bells… And I was holding my dad’s hands, and doing this motion we call “skin the cat”. So I’d run up his legs with my feet, while I hold his hands and flip over. I would just do that while he was talking to other friends, or whatever. It was just – it makes me smile, too.

Well, you asked about sounds, and I’m wondering if maybe the reason why your memory got stuck – because that’s kind of what we think of, why did our memory stick? Because you didn’t intentionally probably try to remember that your whole life, and yet it’s so vivid… Was it maybe the sounds?

In my case I didn’t really have any sounds that I recall. It was more of a – really more or less a visual scenario, a scene that is on a loop; when I think about a memory, it’s on a loop.

Yeah. Well, memory is this interesting process, because first off you need some attention… And I don’t think we know yet why for one person that early memory stands out, as opposed to another. I would think it would look like just sort of converging factors… But the process by which we remember, what we say is encoding, storage and retrieval. So what I have to do is actually encode the information, I have to get it in my brain, and then it’s in this process of what we call working memory, which is generally only about 30 seconds long, that my brain goes “Am I gonna consolidate that and bank it? Am I gonna store that for the future?” or “Am I gonna let it go?” And then the final part is then I can retrieve it.

[00:04:21.26] So it’s interesting working with people who complain about challenges with memory, because it can be for a myriad of reasons that people struggle with it. One could just be attention. This is why a lot of people who have ADHD struggle sometimes with remembering things… And it’s really hard to encode anything that you weren’t paying attention to.

Yeah, that’s true.

So there’s nothing to retrieve, it’s not there.

What’s the age at which you generally begin to remember? We just recalled something in like the 2’s and 3’s… I understand that babies begin to form their long-term memories at around the age of 18 months… So when do we really start to remember, and what’s generally the earliest that people remember?

So generally, a lot of people tend to remember about age five… But like all things, there’s variability in that. And as we talk through this, I think that’ll make more sense for people why they remember one thing over another. But stress is definitely a moderating factor in the memory process.

Some people – we’re gonna talk about this today, but learning is involved in the process of memory. So in order for people to learn, i.e. then remember, you wanna think of it like an inverted U. Either too low a stress, too low of having really any sort of excitation, or too high of stress, is going to influence our ability to encode and then store or bank new information.

Yeah. I have a hypothesis - and I’m not a doctor, as you know… But I’m wondering if maybe how it works at an early age to remember is because there’s less traffic, or just less congestion. We’re older now, obviously, we’re adults, and so our minds have so many things competing.

At that young age all you have is awareness, so it’s a little easier maybe to bank them, and maybe it’s specific ones, and they get retained unintentionally. You don’t consciously commit them into memory. It’s something else that sort of happens, because there’s just less traffic.

Yeah, well - you know, one of the things is that there are less neural connections earlier in life. So your brain is really building these highways in your brain for data to be linked to other data. As we get older, this is why it’s harder to change, so to speak, because those neural networks - otherwise known as [unintelligible 00:06:57.28] - are really more ingrained.

So it’s just harder to change them, because it’s just like this is always the way that we go. And I think that’s why it’s valuable to have these conversations… Because if you aren’t aware that there’s actual routes you’ve developed, then you might not be apt to look at how you could build new routes, or look at other data points to change them.

Have you seen the movie Inside Out?

I almost actually pointed up an idea for a show called “Memory according to Inside Out”, or something to that degree… Because that move was - I’m curious of your opinion on it, but my opinion is that it seems very accurate.

It is really good. I love that move, so listeners, if you haven’t seen it, go check it out… Because I think it’s a really good file in people’s brain to understand the role of emotions as it relates to memory… And that memories are constructed.

[00:08:00.25] And the different emotions also - they’re also part of sadness and joy, part of creating a memory… So joy alone doesn’t make a memory, sadness as well, or disgust, and anger, and… What was the other one - disgust?

Fear, you forgot fear.

Fear. Oh yes, fear. [unintelligible 00:08:19.01]

That’s the key ingredient.

It is. And I just think the character depictions are so good around these emotions. So if you can imagine a T chart, and that with memory there’s what we references as declarative memory, otherwise known as explicit memory, and then on the other side we have non-declarative, implicit memory. These involve different parts of the brain, which is how they’re – you know, the brain is all systems, so they’re interwoven. But declarative memory is generally in the medial temporal love, structures within that part of the brain, and declarative memory is what we talk about with what we’ve learned - general facts and knowledge, world knowledge… It’s not necessarily subject to context or personal relevance. So I could say the capital of Washington is Olympia, or the imaginary line between the northern and southern parts of the world is the Equator. That’s semantic memory; things I go to school to learn.

It’s also declarative… So this declarative memory, I should say, also involves consciousness. I go to my own [unintelligible 00:09:39.20] system library and I retrieve it, and I pull it out. So experiences are part of this declarative memory. Episodes of our life. What we both just referenced are episodic memories. So they’re contextual, and it’s time-locked. The interesting thing with that is when we retrieve them, they’re changing, because I’m pulling them up real-time… So this is why people can have debates or challenged memories, so to speak.

But on the other side of that chart we have non-declarative memory, implicit, which is mostly unconscious. So we’ve talked about habit formation… If you can think of both associative learning and non-associative learning.

Imagine how I pair things that don’t necessarily go together. I associate “Oh, when I listen to this song, I go run, or I work on this type of project. I clean my house in this order of operations.” It’s very much procedures. And it can also be more of this reflexive response.

Think of this like even trauma as well. I can have had a traumatic experience and my brain banks it, and I may or may not be aware of why my body is then reacting.

Some people have a lot of negative thoughts or feelings around clowns, and interestingly enough, that was a memory earlier in one’s life; however it can have more of this implicit reaction that says “Clowns are bad/scary/overwhelming, so I don’t go see clowns.” So implicit memory - these things can actually affect our choices in the day-to-day, without our awareness.

So this memory - the connection, I suppose, of choices to memory is really interesting. You make choices sometimes even based on memories that you’re not really sure that you – not so much not sure that you have them, but they’re sort of like in your subconscious and they come out in this way. With clowns - you might be around a clown and not recall this trauma you had earlier in your life. Suddenly, your heartbeat has increased, maybe you’ve got a sweaty brow… Something’s going on that’s abnormal, and you’re like “Why?”

[00:12:07.18] You have this fear, and maybe you don’t know you have the fear. But something in your life, at some point you decided clowns are bad, and suddenly when you’re around clowns now you’re sweating and anxious.

Yeah. So you can see how these can both be going on at the same time. Maybe we think about it like the analogy of an iceberg, in that explicit memory is what I see above the water, the tip of the iceberg, but then beneath it is more of this implicit memory and the things I’m not necessarily using conscious effort to recall, because it’s like this is the way [unintelligible 00:12:39.14]

Yeah. What do you say then for random memory pops into my head today? I’m just sitting here working, whatever whatever, boom - memory of my mom. I think about Bob Seger, for some reason, because that’s something that she loved to listen to. You know, some weird, random memory just in my brain.

You know, I would say that there was probably something else in terms of the information that was traveling through your brain that prompted that retrieval. Bear in mind, we’re more apt to remember things that we rehearse. So the more often I run that play in my mind, the more often that play is going to be run. It could be you remember whenever you go to this one restaurant, that time you got food poisoning. Or you could remember this one time you participated in a sport, or had an experience with someone that was really aversive, and you’re like “I just don’t like that setting or that environment”, or whatever. We can have feelings about what we’ve been through, that then influence the way in which we respond in the present moment.

Right. Fear…

…dictating your choices.

Right. And this is why recognizing “Hey, I got stimulated”, like “Oh, I’m afraid”, and then going “Okay, so now what? What do I do if I feel that feeling? Is that reminding me of something that was in the past, that’s triggering me, so to speak? Or is that actually a live event?” And that’s really what even therapy is all about - people get to this place of stuckness, and they might not know why. Or they think that everything looks okay, but their body is still reacting in some sort of way that doesn’t go together.

Is that why they say “You need to process this”?

That’s kind of what that is, right? You process, maybe even in time, this memory, this event, this trauma. It’s not happening now. Sometimes when we recall memory, we have autobiographical memory, so I suppose there’s some - and you could probably describe this better than I can - memory, and you think somehow it’s happening right now, and you’re reacting as if it’s right now… But really, that memory was in the past.

Right. And this is why recognizing and differentiating the past from the present is helpful, and why it isn’t helpful to use denial as a coping strategy, and saying “Well, it shouldn’t bother me. That clown should not be disturbing to me.” But you can actually, ironically, empathize with yourself, or be compassionate, and go “I understand why when I was five and I didn’t know what to expect, and this weird-looking person in all this make-up and big hair, with big feet, and I didn’t know how to organize that information with the framework that I had from myself and my world, that it felt intrusive or overwhelming…” So that isn’t true today; one, I’m not five years old… So I can run interference with that and now create a different file, so to speak, in my mind.

It’s almost like remastering a memory.

I’ll be more specific… So you listen to music, and there’s old albums from back in the day… A remash of them in new audio quality for today’s current systems, whatever… It’s kind of revisiting a memory and remastering it. Maybe it’s not a one-to-one perfect analogy, but the point is that you go back to it and kind of reexamine its effect on you.

Someone who has this issue with clowns, if they didn’t take the time to process that and go back and say “Well, this happened to me at five years old, and that’s the reason why I feel that way”, now present day the way they feel around clowns can be different, because they understand where the pain, or drama, or feelings come from, because they know the origin.

Yeah. It’s interesting, because as much as we’re talking about memory, I want people to get at that the primary part of the brain that’s responsible for memory is what we call the hippocampus. I always think of a hippo…

Yeah. Every time.

That’s where I store things. Well, that hippocampus is part of our limbic system, which is responsible for a lot of emotional processing and reasoning. So it would make sense that high emotions - no matter what they are, positive or negative - would play a role in influencing what we remember.

And that’s why going “Okay, if I’m aware of these significant events [unintelligible 00:17:33.00] I took in sensory data - senses being see, smell, touch, taste or hear - that my brain is going to maybe implicitly store those. I’m gonna bank those memories in a different way that I also would the emotion. So then I have to look at “Can these go together? How could I maybe resort, recatalog in my brain these experiences?”, so that they don’t create the same physiological response today that they may have last year, ten years ago, 40 years ago etc.

I’ve been in therapy before, and similar to what you’re describing here, they told me to take these various things – I’m gonna summarize it, without going through the whole therapy session, of course… But essentially to take these things and put them into my briefcase/suitcase and create a file for them. They give me some instructions how to think about the things we had talked about, revisiting these memories/scenarios, and it helps me refile and reform them. “Now you put them in there, to the side, in this less threatening way”, or something like that.

I can’t recall the exact scenario, but it was this idea of packaging them up, putting them in a specific place, and with a specific emotion attached to them, or lack thereof of any threat etc. It was really interesting how it was like “Create a file.”

Right. I think that’s a really helpful way of describing the process. If you’re aware that you have a file, or that you don’t have a file, it can influence how you respond to that. I think a significant event that many people have faced in some form or fashion would be cancer, or health conditions. Some people have a really big file, because they’ve walked through it either with a loved one, someone they know… Or they have no experience, and all it is is the things that they’ve sort of – nuggets they’ve picked up along the way.

Well, those things can form the file that then I associate this new information with, that then creates a feeling, that then creates a response, and now I’m headed down a road that I didn’t even know I was going down. So that awareness around how I’m sort of consolidating information, or the framework within which I operate, is the most critical thing… Because whatever framework we use – you know, I think about it within the tech industry… You guys use a lot of different languages for designing things. Do you use the same language in different systems?

[00:20:26.15] No. Some like to, obviously… It’s nice to have similarity from frontend to backend, for example. Every language or framework has a significant use opportunity, so it wouldn’t fit perfectly in every place, and trying to make it happen wouldn’t be good.

Right. So with individuals, our listeners, or going “Hey, your memories actually influence you, in some form or fashion.”

Yeah. But it you have the opportunity to make a choice, what do you do?

Well, this is why if we go back to that iceberg analogy, recognizing what you see – and this is why having that board of advisors (people close to you) might give you alternative data or feedback, that then you sort of put all of that together and go “Okay, in light of X, Y or Z, would this be the wise choice, or the one that optimizes for what I’m optimizing around?”

Because some people would go “Oh, I had a really bad experience”, and it doesn’t have to be traumatic to allow experiences to influence decisions… Like, for example, food poisoning. Think of how many people might have even gotten sick around the same time that they ate a certain food, and now they’re like “Oh no, I never eat that. I won’t.”

Well, sometimes it can be connected to what comes out… Which is a little TMI, but I have a memory very closely attached to being sick, and I will never eat that food again.

It’s very near and dear, I suppose; it’s happened.

Right. So that’s rooted in your experience… So you retrieve that. And if you were to eat that, your brain would be like–

Associations, yeah.

Right, “Here’s your warning label.”

Just even the smell of it reminds you of the disgust you had.

I have a similar feeling, I suppose, to – I know at some point in our life we’ll buy, or potentially build a new house… And when we built our current house, it was – it could have just been the timeframe, and the fact that our son wasn’t very old; so it could have just been the timeframe, or the struggle of the timeframe of life, but my memory of building the house we’re currently in was very hard.

Very difficult. So the next time we do it, I’m gonna be very specific and very purposeful in deciding to even do it.

I’m so glad you brought that up, because what you’re getting at, Adam, is the way in which learning is highly tethered into/connected to memory. And because I suspect there was significant emotions around the process… It wasn’t super-simple, dare I say.

It was harder than I thought. It was a lot more involved; it was like a second job. It’s a significant investment; it’s where you’re gonna spend potentially the rest of your life, if it’s your long-term home, or 20-30 year home, whatever it might be… But it’s a very important thing, and you wanna pay attention to all the details. And if you’re building it, you wanna manage the process of building it and ensure that it’s met all of the things that you agreed to, and is what you wanna buy, and all that good stuff.

[00:23:55.11] Right. So all of that experience played a role in what you learned and the information you consolidated, or dare I say encoded, and then stored for future use. So when we’re talking about “What are you learning?” you have to go “What is it that I’m paying attention to? What is it that my brain’s storing, and maybe why is it storing that data over another piece of data?

When you say that do you mean perspective, potentially? Because two people, same process, two different memories.

And my wife’s memories aren’t exactly – she agrees it was hard, but I’m far more catastrophic about it than she is. I’m catastrophizing the scenario in many ways, and she’s like “Nah, that’s not true.” But we were both in the same place, same time… Most times we were both at the job site, our home now, at the same time, experiencing the same words from the foreman or whatever… But our memories are very different.

Sure. So hence what you learned or extrapolated from that differs… Which would make you more prone to do it again, or maybe less prone, because of what you learned. So really, learning is this process by which we remember things for future use… So it’s interesting, because I’m very fascinated about why something sticks for somebody at one point, versus not another one… And really, what we’ve found is effort actually plays a role in this consolidation process.

Effort as in attention effort?

Effort as in energy.

For example, there is – and I’m not sure if I’ve referenced this research study before or not, but there’s one where they’ve had students/kids look at a computer screen, and one computer screen, and one computer screen was really difficult to make out what was on it, so the kids had to put forth more energy to figure out what was there… Versus it was super-crisp and clear in terms of presentation format.

So the group that had to work harder or put forth more effort, was actually the one that retained more later on. So they remembered better because there was a certain degree of effort involved in it.

I guess that could be correlated with commitment. If you’re committed to something, it’s somewhat like effort; you’re gonna be mentally committed, you’re gonna have a different mental picture of whatever it is, differently than somebody who’s not committed, who’s not creating a mental picture prior to, or preparing, or planning… The effort does really seem to stick for me.

Yeah. I would even offer one step further maybe, saying your level of investment.

Because not everybody has the same level of investment, because who cares about all the same things in the same way, or same degree? Nobody.

Nobody. And really, that’s what makes the world work. Ideally, if everybody does their individual part, we can all work together. So for people to recognize, learning always involves some degree of energy and effort. This is why when I think about technology - I used to be a lot better at memorizing phone numbers. And over the years, with technology and what I call my external brain i.e. my phone, I don’t have to utilize memory in the same way. That’s fine on a day-to-day basis, but what if I really needed to get a hold of somebody for some specific purpose, but I don’t remember that number?

Yeah, you can’t do it.

Well, this is the challenge. Sometimes easy isn’t always better.

[00:27:57.12] Yeah. There’s the flipside though, that some would say that I’m being more efficient given certain assurances that today’s world offers. Assuming the cloud doesn’t go down. Assuming that my iPhone has a charge. Assuming all those things remain true, then why store them in memory? It could store for me instead, so that I can reallocate and focus my brain on other things that seem to be more important.

Yes. So that would be true in some ways, but also then maybe not for other people, in other ways. But you’re correct that it’s a reallocation of resources, and saying “I don’t need to spend my cognitive resources or hold a huge file to remember phone numbers, because I’ve got somewhere else that I can do it.”

Maybe you think about it in terms of, again, “What am I optimizing for? What do I care most about? How am I putting forth effort?” Your level of skill around all that you do professionally… You’ve switched from doing actual programming, development etc. to talking about it and helping other people have access to other teachers that they can learn from, right? That’s a whole different skillset than what you were learning before, so what you remember is likely different today because of what you’re optimizing around.

So maybe I don’t wanna allocate all of my resources in this one lane over here, because it doesn’t actually take me in the direction that I wanna go… And that’s why I’m not gonna focus my effort or attention in that way. And we all have that choice.

Yeah, yeah. The bad side though is when the phone dies, or the cloud is gone, then you kind of are stuck though… Right?

Yeah, but here’s the other sort of negative consequence I would see is that when I look at – and really researchers, when we say “What is it that helps people do the best, and survive in this world?”, it really is this idea of resilience; like I can bounce back. And if everything is easy and I don’t really have to work that hard, guess what my experience is gonna tell me life is about?

So now, everytime I encounter an obstacle or a challenge, I might make inferences around that, be it around my capabilities, or around the plausibility or possibility of something actually coming to pass.

Gotta pay attention, you know? To make those memories, you’ve gotta pay attention. Without your attention on things there’s no memory going in.

Yeah. And so for our listeners, I really just want them to take away that they can make choices around how they do different things. We’ve talked about attention being an allocation of resources, and the competition involved in that, to say “What things are important to me to remember?” and I think that it’s gonna be varied. You talked about your memory with your father, and I talked about my memory with my father…

I also am very deliberate around events and experiences with my children, because there’s always this possibility of threat, of loss. I’m not in charge of all the things that happen in life, and so I try to enhance my awareness of certain senses; in day-to-day life I might take a step back and just try to take it all in, so that my brain encodes that with a broader context for retrieval, because that’s what I value.

[00:32:03.18] I’m curious what the specifics are around that, but I’m assuming it might be like “present and aware”. What matters right now is what’s happening right now, and it takes awareness. So the idea of “be present, here and now”, and be aware, attention - it would seem key in enjoying the moment and retaining some memory of it.

Yeah. So Adam, what you’re saying is my memory will improve as based upon my ability to pay attention.

You’re right. And that’s why recognizing this sense of encoding, I have to actually get the data in before I can provide an output, because there’s not gonna be any retrieval to put back out there if I didn’t encode it in the first place.

So you guys talk about coding so many different things… What would it be like if you actually looked at yourself and started to be considerate of the way in which your coding, the framework of your mind and how you’re doing your day-to-day life…?

You’re really talking what we talked about in episode 11, which was competing for attention… This idea that – I lost my thought.

Hang in there… Because it was competitive.

It was around being distracted, and I was being distracted, because something buzzed on my phone when I thought half a second about what I was thinking about. But it’s exactly that, right? If you want to learn, and you have to pay attention, well then it seems like you shouldn’t be distracted.

So you almost have to identify the opposite to understand the full spectrum of what you should do. So to pay attention, don’t be distracted.

Well, and for you it’s sort of looking - and when I say “you”, I mean you the listener - at that zone that is optimal for you to embed the information. So going “Is there a time of day, are there certain constraints or situations, environmental factors, like “Who’s present, who’s not?” All of these things that would make me more apt to consolidate information, so that I can bank it for future use.

This is the challenge in trying to navigate ourselves in our world - we’re not always aware of all that’s going on beneath the surface, or all of the different systems at play in our brain throughout our days. But if I can offer an opportunity for change to our listeners, I would say I want you to start to be more considerate around prioritizing your attention around the things that you want to remember… Because it can also change your response to hiccups throughout the day, and going “You know what - I don’t wanna give much of my energy to that, because that doesn’t really matter, and I don’t really wanna occupy brain space or storage space in my brain for future retrieval. I wanna let that pass on by, so that I can actually consolidate the things that I care most about, that are going to provide the feeling that I want to have throughout my day, my weeks, and the years to come.”

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