OK, so I’m dating myself quoting a song from the musical Gigi, but if you remember the scene from the movie, old lovers Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold sing their memories of the time they first fell in love. Of course, each remembers it very differently.
The process of memory has been and still remains mysterious, but there’s a lot of research ongoing in the field.
Brain cells, or neurons, essentially send messages by sparking to other neurons. Even as far back as the 1970’s it was discovered that there are certain neurons in the hippocampus (a structure deep within the lower part of the brain) that appear to be directly connected to our location in space. Researchers have called these “place cells”, because specific neurons will fire according to a specific location, and others will even fire in correlation to the direction travelled. New research has discovered comparable neurons associated with time sequences (quickly dubbed “time cells”). The lead author of the new study, Dr. Howard Eichenbaum from the Center for Memory and Brain at Boston University, revealed that not only did particular neurons of the hippocampus capture frozen moments of a sequence of events, but certain cells also marked out the gap of time between two separated events. The cells could reset that gap if the delay between the events was changed. Now I’m dying to find out how those neurons differentiate between events that seem to be short (like spending time with a lover) and events that seem to take forever (like spending time with the boss).
On a more general level, it’s been known for some time that the brain does most of its data storage during the night, while we sleep. A study released earlier this year involved volunteers who were asked to memorize 40 pairs of words, or perform some other memory task. Some were told that they’d be tested on the task ten hours later. Some were allowed to sleep before the test. As expected, the volunteers who caught some shuteye did better on the test, but the ones who really stood out were the ones who slept and knew they’d be tested. Obviously the brain treats information differently if it knows that information will be needed at some future time. So some advice to guys in a new relationship: understand that in twenty years your lady is going to expect you to remember the dress she was wearing when you first met. Maybe your brain will cooperate, and save you from the glare of death down the road.
One thing is clear to me: research into the process of memory will never be complete until it can explain why my wife can recall every detail of events I can’t even swear actually happened, and she always turns out to be right.