12 Unforgettable facts about memory and the human brain

Are you studying a new language? Learning to paint or play the piano? Or are you hitting the books for a new certification at work? Would you love to recall people’s names without fail? No matter who you are or what you do, your ability to retain and recall information plays a pivotal role in your day-to-day life.

Our senses are continually taking in stimuli in the present moment, but other than that momentary snapshot of our surroundings, our conscious lives are really only memories. With more than one billion neurons in the human brain forming trillions of connections, our brains are always creating new memories and accessing old ones. In fact, scientific research shows that the human brain initiates its first memories from the womb, at only 20 weeks after conception.

Believe it or not, when it comes to personal development, nothing is more important than memory. If you’re looking to break through and finally achieve your goals, how you retain and process positive and negative memories about your life and past experiences is also critical.

Here are 12 unforgettable facts about the human memory:

1. Scientists have discovered that the storage capacity of the human brain is almost limitless. Paul Reber, a Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University calculated that your memory could store about 2.5 PETABYTES of data, which is 2,500,000 Gigabytes, or 300 years worth of television shows!

2. So why do we forget so much information, like street addresses, phone numbers, and our coworker's names on a daily basis? Research points to the fact that information is never really lost from our memory, just shuffled to the back like documents forgotten in a filing cabinet, and only when we strengthen or reinforce the connections between neurons in the brain will the information come back to us.

3. We also appear to forget things because out short term – or "working" memory - can only handle a few items at a time. In fact, research shows most people can only recall 4-9 units of information at a time in the short term! However, with training, we can learn to recall more by breaking things into chunks, which is the reason why you use the cadence 1-2-3….4-5-6…7-8…9-10, when you’re trying to remember someone’s phone number.

4. Since our short term memories are so limited, it's also usually ineffective to cram for a test the night before. In fact, research into the effects of sleep on short-term memory shows that you'd probably be better off getting a few extra hours of ZZZs instead of cramming!

5. Regardless of what you may think you feel like after a cup of coffee, caffeine doesn’t improve your memory, it only makes your brain more alert.

The average adult has the memory capacity to learn and maintain a vocabulary of 20,000 to 100,000 words. (There are 171,476 words in current use in the English language according to the Oxford Dictionary.)

6. Have you ever smelled pine trees and instantly thought of great times at your childhood summer camp, or sniffed a cologne/perfume and instantly missed your ex? Smell is an incredibly powerful memory trigger, perhaps more so than any of your senses. Aside from easily triggering a trip down memory lane, the olfactory nerve is located near the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes the experience of emotion as memory.

7. Have you ever tried to remember something REALLY hard? Did it help? Research points to that it probably did, as the more you concentrate on recalling information, the more likely you are to remember it accurately since thinking about it creates a stronger connection between the neurons in your brain.

8. Therefore, memory can also be exercised and practiced to improve, just like any other muscle or skill. A 2005 article in The Monitor on Psychology summarized the massive amounts of memory enhancement research, pointing out that techniques like “taking a mental picture,” taking mental notes, using memorization techniques like rhymes, mnemonic devices, and other strategies can aid day-to-day memory. For instance, we’re more likely to remember something if we first registered it in an unconventional or out-of-the-norm manner.

9. The concept of “false memories” is very real. Scientists have discovered that our brains can create memories that are just as real as those from authentic experiences. We also exaggerate, distort, and change memories we have about real events, especially as time passes. This is especially true of memories of particularly significant or traumatic experiences. The prevalence of false memories in the human mind has some serious implications, such as testifying against someone in a criminal trial, making accusations about something that happened in childhood, etc. In fact, in one study, researchers were able to convince 70% of the participants that THEY had committed a crime when, of course. they hadn't!

10. With aging comes the inevitable loss of memory and brain power, including degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's, right? Not necessarily, as new research is finding some paradoxical but also encouraging evidence about memory and old age.

While memory loss and Alzheimer's does occur in many seniors, the loss of memory as we get along in years may not be inevitable. Studies have shown that some subjects in their 70s performed on cognitive tests just as good as those in their 20s, and some of their memory functions even improved with age!

11. A good part of what dictates our brain health and function as we age may have to do with genetics, which can't be changed. But we also tend to lose memory when we get old because we use and exercise our brain less. Research shows that continuing to learn, think, discover new things, and stay intellectually engaged all help strengthen your brain – including information retention.

12. We may think of our brains as a unchangeable command center, but, in fact, our brain structure changes physically when we learn something new. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) maps of our brain patterns reveal that blood flow increases in certain parts of the brain when we take in new information, as well as long-term structural alterations in white and gray brain matter.


Look for part two of this blog with more interesting facts about human memory – including the best techniques to learn and retain just about any information!

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