Why is it that many of our memories can only be accessed in our brains after we are reminded of them?

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Why is it that many of our memories can only be accessed in our brains after we are reminded of them?

In: Biology
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The memory you are talking about is associative, meaning things and events are linked together so when you are reminded of something it activates all the things associated to that memory giving you more detail about the memory itself.

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Edit: maybe you’re wondering why we can’t just access our memories at will? Well it’s because those memories might only be weakly associated to things in your day to day, you don’t want to remember everything all the time, so it requires a certain activation of pathways to trigger that memory. This is why sometimes retracing your steps, either physically or mentally, helps if you have misplaced something.

You can argue that the point of a memory is to help you learn from past experiences – to remember that a shadow like that was once a hungry hawk, or that you’ve hidden a nut in this part of a field.

Memories are linked to certain sensory inputs so that when you see that shadow, or pass through that field, you’ll bring up the memory. Smells are the most strongly linked, which is why they can be so nostalgic.

As humans, we can remember lots of memories at will, no matter where we are. I think this is a result of our vivid imaginations that let us simulate all kinds of inputs and trigger memories that way. But you need the right trigger and sometimes imagination just isn’t enough.

I’m pretty sure we don’t know whether other animals can bring up memories without sensory triggers but that’s a fascinating question! I’d bet they can, though it must be harder without language or as much meta cognition.

Because you “forgot” the pathway in your brain to it. Association is huge in how our memories are formed, so getting that reminder, which could also be a smell or a sound, lights up those pathways again.