The Nature of Memory

At one point or another, you’ve probably asked yourself why you remember certain things, and why you don’t. Is there one thing that makes us remember or forget? Why do we remember bad things more than good things? One of life’s great mysteries is why certain experiences get lodged immovably in our memory, while others are forgotten. Recent studies in neuroscience have allowed scientists to only begin to explain the nature of our memory.

In 2008, TIME magazine interviewed Matt Wilson, a professor of neurobiology at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Here, Wilson answers question that only reach the tip of the iceberg.

When askedWhy do we remember unpleasant events better than ordinary ones?’, Wilson replied:

We think of memory as a record of our experience. But the idea is not just to store information; it’s to store relevant information. [The idea is] to use our experience to guide future behavior.

Further into the article, Wilson explained that there has been a lot of really interesting research that points to a connection between our memory of the past and our ability to imagine the future. He mentions one specific example, that, in our studies of animal models of memory, where we’re able to go in and actually watch the pattern of a rat’s brain activity, we can see that the brain activity while the animal is in a behavior-based situation, [such as navigating a maze,] directly corresponds to its future behavior: what it can, may and will do in the future.

 “We can see that the animal does in fact — I hesitate to use the word, but I’ll use it anyway — “think.” In terms of brain activity, anticipating the future and remembering the past seem to be related.

The speculation is that we process memory in order to solve problems. And things we should learn from, things that are particularly important or that have strong emotions tied to them, may be things that are going to be important in the future. If you present stimuli with a strong negative emotional component, the memories do seem to be more easily retrieved than neutral stimuli or even those that are somewhat positive, for example happy faces versus angry faces.

It is for this reason that it will be impossible for us to forget events like 9/11 and the Holocaust. We process these horrific memories in order to try and think of ways to prevent anything like it to ever happen again. We want to disprove the theory that ‘history repeats itself’. So far, memory is helping achieve this.

The most commendable, honorable, respectable moments in our country’s history have been acknowledged with the fact that we cannot forget. We cannot forget the turmoil and brutality, but we also cannot forget the pride and patriotism that follow. In this video, President Ronald Reagan makes a speech at Point-du-Hoc, Normandy. This speech alone illustrates WHY we must remember World War II. In the grand scheme of things, President Reagan eludes to the fact that good or bad, it is our job to remember what makes our country what it is today.

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  1. I wonder if the statement, “We think of memory as a record of our experience. But the idea is not just to store information; it’s to store relevant information. [The idea is] to use our experience to guide future behavior” is a good thing since you have already noted how flawed memories can be. I am also struck by Reagan’s insistance that we remember the past…he was very adapt at nostalgia, which is not always a good record of memory. For the record, he did serve in the military, but never went overseas…instead he worked on films for the Army and Air Force. This is as close as he got to a battlefield other than a set….but he did have a film reel record of the Holocaust in the event some people would deny it happened.


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