Memory and the Brain

Ok, so Word Documents are not permitted as a media form….sorry here goes…

I chose this medium because I felt I could convey the most information from an old-school, straight-up, report. I have always been interested in memory, and as a result, I chose this topic. Through this project, I am just trying to convey some interesting facts, and possible ways to keep your memory in the best shape possible.

The Human Brain

When rating organs by complexity and intricateness, the human mind may be at the top of the list, followed by the brains of various other animals. The inherent complexity of the brain, any brain for that matter, results in a plethora of encounters with extreme difficulty when studying it. One of the challenges of neuroscientists is understanding the mechanisms at play in the brain in respect to memory formation – diseases such as Alzheimer’s are, today, impossible to cure due to the obscure nature of memory in the brain. Understanding memory, and its formation, holds the key to increased human intelligence and treatments for various forms of neurological disorders, dementia being a forerunner on the list. Intelligence has led humans to the top of the food chain and the brain has played a critical role in humans being able to dominate the world with intelligence. Contemporary humans often overlook the power of the brain, and its everyday function and impact on lives which is vital in many, if not all, different facets of life.

The human mind usage myth, as purported by various Hollywood movies, (most recent of which are Lucy starring Scarlett Johansson and Limitless with Bradley Cooper) actually depicts the polar opposite of the reality. Humans do not only utilize 10-14% of their brain; the entire brain, 100%, is used all day, every day. In fact, even while asleep, most of the brain is still fully active doing very important activities such as repairing muscles, directing traffic, and consolidating memories. The Hollywood depiction of increasing human intelligence through the use of technology and medicine are farfetched and untruthful. However, mankind may still be able to make brains “smarter” by adding brain cells, either neurons or glia. A more natural method to increase intelligence would be to increase oxygen intake. More oxygen would result in a more efficient and powerful mind (Boyd).

The brain is relatively small compared to some of the super computers that we have today. However, the brain has more than a billion neurons, each of which can form over 1000 connections with other neurons. If each neuron did not form these connections, or synapses, then we would only have a couple of gigabytes of storage in our brains, the equivalent of a portable music player. With these synapses, neurons can mutually strengthen each other: with the combined force of a billion neurons, the human mind the capacity to hold up to 2.5 petabytes of memories, information, and experiences. One petabyte is a little over one million gigabytes and with this massive storage capacity, it becomes extremely hard for the brain to send out signals that say “sorry your memory disk is full.” If anyone completely filled up his/her brain’s memory capacity, he/she could store 300 years worth of continuous TV shows in his/her brain…in HD (Reber)! Moreover, the brain is so useful because it uses such little energy to run. On one of their episodes, Scishow compared the world’s fastest super computer, K, to the average human brain. They deduced that although K was able to process four times more operations per second and store ten times more information than the human brain, it required 9.9 million watts to run. The human brain requires a whopping 20. To put that into perspective, K has an annual operating cost of 10 million dollars and originally cost 1.25 billion dollars to create. Conversely, the brain costs nothing but food and oxygen intake. In addition to more energy and money, the K supercomputer takes up much more space; K takes up 672 datacenter racks each of which are seven feet high, 19 inches high, and 21 inches deep! This gives it a volume of nearly 20 cubic feet. On the other hand, the brain is the size of two fists put together which when converted into cubic feet is (approximately) 0.022389! K takes up over 900 times the space of a single brain. The battle of supercomputer versus brain might seem won by K in the specifications and sheer computing power, but when one digs a little bit deeper, the brain is more efficient, cost-effective, compact, and mobile.

Understanding memories is a complicated and ambitious endeavor. Making memories is a very complicated process which involves most of one’s senses. When something is remembered, the whole experience is remembered, not just one particular sense of that object or phenomenon. Take for example, the memory of a grandmother. When first meeting one’s grandma (or anyone for that matter, as xenophobes will attest), she is foreign, unknown, and uncomforting; the senses, disregarding the initial appeal, store multiple pieces of information about her. Her appearance, the sound of her voice, and her scent are all stored immediately after the first meeting. Once these senses do their job, the information is sent up, as multiple unique sets of information, to the hippocampus and then stored as one whole experience. Neurologists believe that the hippocampus, along with the rest of the frontal cortex is responsible for the decision of whether to keep the memories or throw them away. If the frontal cortex decides that the memory is worth keeping then it is sent into multiple different parts of the brain to be stored as a long term memory. If the memory is deemed not worth remembering then the cortex will keep it in the short-term memory. Although variations occur from person to person, short term memory is very brief (as the name suggests) and is only capable of storing memories for an average of 30 seconds. So where do the neurons come into play? Synapses, all 160 trillion of them, are the location of the memory storage. The synapses have to first connect and once connected, they can split apart. Consequently, not triggering certain synapses for long periods of time can make them split, and the memory between those two neurons will be lost (Mohs 1-2).

There are multiple reasons why memory loss occurs. Most of these factors are just having direct damage to the brain either chemically or physically. Alcohol and tobacco use, sleep deprivation, stress, stroke, and malnutrition are all known causes for memory loss. No matter how old one is, everyone suffers from memory loss if not to an extreme level, at least to a certain degree. The older a person gets, the worse their memory is due to their immune system degeneration and more exposure to memory loss factors. Alcohol and tobacco use damages the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and in turn lessens the amount of oxygen entering the brain which will then inhibit brain functions including memory. Sleep deprivation results in fatigue, and fatigue will act as an impediment to brain function. This happens because there are three steps in memory making: acquisition, consolidation, and recall. Acquisition is gaining something (information, memory, experience, or otherwise) that is worth remembering. Consolidation is storing that memory in the brain. Recalling is the act of remembering a memory later on. Scientists say that acquisition and recall take place during the day, when the brain and body are both active. However, the act of consolidation occurs during the sleeping period when the brain is still active and functioning. The brain will process information and memories that occurred during the day and will consolidate them or store them in the brain. Without a good night’s sleep, memories cannot be consolidated and in turn cannot be recalled a day later. This leads to an important life lesson, don’t cram! All-nighters may seem useful, but in reality, are one of the worst ways to study.

Yet another cause of memory loss is stress. When people are stressed, the mind is both extremely stimulated (because of the many things that the mind knows it has to do) and distracted (fun activities seem even more fun when one has extreme amounts of work to be done). Stress triggers a highly complex chemical process that occurs throughout the body. During stressful situation, a certain chemical, cortisol, is distributed throughout the body by the brain and it provides energy to the limbs to take action and get work done. While it may provide the body with required energy, this process robs the brain of its energy, especially the hippocampus. When this process lasts for a long amount of time the hippocampus gets damaged and the brain function is hindered. With the proper amount of sleep, without stress, the hippocampus repairs itself and is then able to replay the events during the stressful period and new memories are created; however, repeatedly exposing this fragile part of the brain results in irreparable damage which inhibits brain functioning and could, potentially, turn into permanent memory loss (Argyle; Chang).

Malnutrition, most importantly not having the proper amounts of B1 and B12 vitamins greatly impacts brain function and more specifically memory. Vitamin B12 is probably the single most important substance, other than of course oxygen and other essentials, which the brain needs. This vitamin helps to repair and maintain nerve cells and make new DNA (which will make more new nerve cells). Although the body only requires 1.8 – 2.6 micrograms per day, B12 is essential to memory because without it, nerve cells (that have bonds to other nerve cells) will die due to lack of maintenance. Vitamin B12 is analogous to a technician for brain cells; once in a while, every cell needs some maintenance. B12 repairs neurons and restores them to full functionality. Without healthy nerve cells the brain cannot function and therefore cannot store memories. B1, while not as important to the brain, can lead to brain dysfunction. B1 improves the immune system and enhances the body’s ability to cope with stress. This leads to a more efficient hippocampus, which leads to improved memory. A deficiency of B1, which is very rare, causes an inability to digest essential carbohydrates. This digestion inability leads to build up of acidic substance in the bloodstream which decreases mental alertness. This acidic substance decreases mental alertness. Interestingly enough, although B12 is highly important for the body, its deficiency is very common among teenagers and adults, whereas B1, although not as important, is deficient in very few people (Office of Dietary Supplements; Ehrlich).

Although scientists know how memory loss is caused and the main brain regions affected, they still do not know how the brain makes and stores memories. Because it is most likely in the synapses that these memories are kept and stored, it is nigh on impossible to “fix up” a person’s memories after the onset of dementia. The main reason why there is no fool-proof way to cure memory loss is because it happens at such a cellular level, it is impossible to restore the original setting. There are just too many possibilities for the different arrangements of the individual neurons that make up each and every memory. In addition, there are many different causes of memory loss and once it occurs, it is hard to reverse the effects and processes that take place to initiate memory loss in the first place. Memory loss may never be curable. As a human race, nobody will get rid of the words, “I forget”, as far as the eye can see. Unless with some miraculous technological advancements that will empower doctors with the ability to position each and every one of the 160 trillion synapses, there is no feasible way that memory loss can be cured.

The brain helps humans in various different ways and it is imperative to realize that without it humans would be lost in everyday life. From remembering simple tasks to knowing how to execute them, from reading and comprehending text to interpreting speech, from knowing what to do next to remembering the faces of loved ones. The brain plays one of the most critical roles for humans and the success of the human race is testament to the old adage “Brains before Brawn”. Humans may lack the strong physical features that many predators have but compensate with intelligence that is second to none enabling us to be at the top. Homo Sapien success is owed to the brain, without which it would be impossible to perpetrate even the simplest tasks. The social animal may not have talons or fangs, but it does have something much better: an unbelievably fantastic, amazingly efficient, better than others, brain which allows it to do tasks that would seem impossible to any others.

Works Cited

Argyle, Matt “Can Stress Cause Memory Loss?.” Can Stress Cause Memory Loss?. 13 Jan. 2009

Boyd, Robynne. Do People Only Use 10 Percent Of Their Brains?: Scientific American. Scientific American, 2 Feb. 2008. Web.

Chang, Louise, MD. “Memory Loss (Short- and Long-Term).” Pg. 1-2. WebMD. WebMD, 26 Aug. 2011.

Chang, Louise, MD. “WebMD.” Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss (2005): WebMD. WebMD, 18 Mar. 2011.

Ehrlich, Steven D., NMD. Vitamin B1University of Maryland Medical Center. University of Maryland, 26 June 2011.

Essenfeld, Bernice. “Brain.” Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 4th ed. Detroit: Gale Group, 2008. Discovering Collection. Gale. UDLibSEARCH Main Account.

Mohs, Richard C.  “How Human Memory Works” 08 May 2007.  Pg. 1-2.

Office of Dietary Supplements. “Vitamin B12.” QuickFacts. National Institutes of Health, 24 June 2011.

Reber, Paul. What Is the Memory Capacity of the Human Brain?: Scientific American. Scientific American, 11 Apr. 2010. Web.

Scishow. “Brain vs. Computer.” 03 May 2012. Online Video Clip. YouTube.


It’s been great guys.




2 responses to “Memory and the Brain”

  1. Carlos Aizenman says:

    Interesting report. One thing to consider is that memories are distributed, so as long as part of the original network is preserved, memories can be retrieved at least partially and maybe reconsolidated.

  2. Elbert Gong says:

    I didn’t know synapses played that much of a role in memory, which was very interesting. Also, I liked the second last paragraph. It reminded me of eyewire and how far away we are from having a neuron-by-neuron understanding of the brain.

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