• Question: What are the mechanics behind how the brain learns and stores information?

    Asked by sjays to Michael, Katherine, Joni, Duncan, Daniel, Catriona, Anna on 15 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Duncan Astle

      Duncan Astle answered on 15 Apr 2015:

      Great question – and there is no short answer!

      Whilst there are many conflicting views about how the brain stores and maintains information over the long term, this is a view that a number of scientists share: The initial laying down of new memories depends upon a brain structure called the hippocampus – damage to this structure results in large impairments to long-term memory formation. However, over time information becomes represented in a more distributed across different brain areas, in a hippocampus-independent format. This process is sometimes referred to as consolidation. During consolidation the new information is integrated with existing knowledge, and becomes much more durable and useable.

      Imagine I taught you a new word. Initially you will represent that word as an individual exemplar – you might remember exactly when I taught you the word, the day etc. But over time that new piece of information becomes integrated with your existing set of words. You certainly remember the word, but probably not the initial instance in which you learnt it.

      There are lots of studies looking at learning novel information that have suggested a transition like this – from an initial highly specific piece of information (depending upon the hippocampus) to a durable generalised part of our knowledge system (which is to some extent independent of the hippocampus). Interestingly, many researchers now think that this consolidation process happens optimally during sleep (though this is not to say that it can happen at other times).

      That is a bit of a simplification, but I hope that it helps!

    • Photo: Catriona Morrison

      Catriona Morrison answered on 15 Apr 2015:

      Short answer or a very long one?! Actually there is no short answer. But I’ll be as brief as possible. And I’m talking about the mind here rather than the brain – but a neuroscientist would quite easily map one onto the other.
      Learning involves three stages: encoding, storage and retrieval. You won’t remember if you haven’t logged the information in the first place. Then, you won’t remember if it is not stored in your memory banks. Third, you won’t remember if the information is possibly in there but irretrievable.
      You might not be that impressed by my answer and argue it’s commonsense – and I wouldn’t disagree. But very often in science we fail to apply commonsense. A bit more of it would go a long way.