what does the brain process look like when we eventually remember a difficult to remember piece of information?


“What was the name of that kid that sat behind me in 5th grade?” Is the path like a tree probing down different branches, or like a train and the information is at a far away stop, or just opening boxes at random, or maybe something else?

In: Biology

The way the brain remembers things is by trying its best to replicate the exact state it was in when the memory occurred; it tries to fire its neurons in a similar way that they were fired back when it happened. It’s able to remember this state because when something it deems worth remembering happens, it links together the relevant neurons. Also, these links are stronger or weaker depending on your emotional state when the memory happened. If you were experience strong emotions, you’re more likely to remember it. Absurdity also makes memories more detailed; we’re more likely to remember weird shit.

Over time, those links deteriorate. There’s also some evidence to suggest that the brain might reorganize every now and then to reprioritize which memories should have stronger links. Older memories you don’t think about much, as well as memories of inconsequential things (like a random classmate’s name) aren’t very high priority, and they’re going to deteriorate faster.

Likewise, you can make an old memory stronger by thinking about it more. For example, if you know how to ride a bike but haven’t in a long time, you’re probably going to have some trouble when you start out, but you’ll very quickly get back to where you were before. Or, for a more cognitive example, if you only have one semester of math each year, you probably need a little bit of a warm-up period at the beginning of the semester before you feel like you’re comfortable with algebra and such again.

TL;DR: So to get back to your question: neither! Memories aren’t really in a place you can go to and retrieve, they’re a bunch of symbolic connections that are activated. Those old memories are hard to remember because those connections are weaker. It’s a little like getting to a file in file explorer: the memory is in a known location, your brain just has to open it. It’s just a file that fragments over time as it’s not used.