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The unforgettable science of building memories

By Lucas Tessaro Cramming for an exam. A long night of last-minute learning. We’ve all been there. Many of us even scraped through the exam, but did we really learn anything? Probably not.
You can’t take a ride on your hippocampus, but you can help it form memories by playing repetitive memory games with it. Supplied graphic.

By Lucas Tessaro 


Cramming for an exam. A long night of last-minute learning. We’ve all been there.

Many of us even scraped through the exam, but did we really learn anything? 

Probably not.

We just stored enough in our memory for long enough to put half-decent answers together. If we’d looked at the questions again in a week, we likely couldn’t have begun to provide any sensible answers.

Learning and memory are two complementary mental processes that cannot exist without each other. Not surprisingly, most learning depends on memories that are stored for longer than overnight.

As everybody knows, we learn by having new experiences and gathering new information that changes how we do something, playing a guitar, for instance, and what we know, like the facts about an historical event.

We store these experiences and information as long-term memories. It all comes down to a process brain scientists call consolidation: How the brain moves memories from temporary storage to long-term storage.

Put your hands around the back of your head just above your ears. You’re covering the temporal lobes of your brain. Inside each lobe is a hot dog-shaped clump of brain cells called the hippocampus.

The two parts of the hippocampus, on the right and left sides of the brain, are vital for the consolidation of new memories.

In almost a common sense kind of way, repetition is key to the building of new memories.

Repeated stimulation of brain cells in the hippocampus while saying a word or memorizing a formula creates a pattern that becomes associated with that particular memory.

The brain remembers the pattern when brain cells — neurons — generate little spines that connect them in the new pattern. Brain scientists call this process “long-term potentiation” or LTP.

Recent research has confirmed that your mother was right when she said sleep helps your memory. So-called slow-wave sleep helps the brain shift memories to long-term storage. Sleep is more of a necessity for creating memories of patterns of movements – like how to take a slapshot – than general information.

We also know it occurs while we’re awake.

Consolidation and long-term storage of memories doesn’t just involve our hippocampus though. Several regions of the brain are activated. Engaging more parts of the brain and increasing the time to process new memories not only permits new connections between neurons, but more importantly it allows neurons to be repeatedly activated in a way that makes long-term storage more reliable.

Advice on how to improve memory often includes using images or visualizations to improve memory. This method enriches the common memory process by using many different parts of the brain at once.

Most people find it easier to remember details of what they have heard in a class or a presentation if they write their own notes rather than just reading a handout. Writing actively engages the brain in processing and consolidating the information: Learning has begun.

Now, don’t you forget it.

Lucas Tessaro is a graduate student in the Neuroscience Research Group at Laurentian University. He sleeps well and takes notes in his classes. Have a burning science question that can be answered in Northern Life’s new science column, Talking Science? Send your question to