How Memories are Formed in the Brain

Long known as a mechanism for survival, the formation of memories has been minimally understood until the last two decades, whereby substantial progress has been made.

Memories shape the world in which humans live and are responsible for environmental awareness, behavior, mood, and intelligence. An individual with a strong memory has many advantages in all aspects of life.

In what follows, we’ll explore how memories are formed in the brain. More specifically, we’ll explore the three primary stages of memory creation: sensory registration, short-term memory, and long-term memory.


Defined by the processes that involve interpretation, thought storage, and information retrieval, memory is a highly complex mechanism of the brain that helps serve the human experience in several ways.

Put more simply, memory is the ability not only to retain information but to recall it at a later date.

Functioning through the reactivation of neurons and formed through neurological connections, memory can vary in strength, hence the differentiation between short-term and long-term memory.

Stages of Memory Creation

Though memory is often thought of as one singular brain function, it comprises several complex processes that involve three types or stages of memory creation.

Yet, several mechanisms can get in the way of memory creation and storage. Examples of these mechanisms include memory consolidation and forgetfulness.

Memory consolidation occurs during the standard process of memory creation, during which information is categorized as essential and nonessential. Similarly, forgetfulness tends to occur when a lack of effort is made to recall or repeatedly remember the associated data.

As a simple illustration, it’s much easier to recall a familiar face you see every day rather than a face you’ve known for a decade but only see occasionally.

The following three stages of memory creation include sensory register, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory Register

During the sensory registration phase of memory, the brain captures passive information from the external environment, whether audio, visual, smell, or touch.

These systems are otherwise known as the visual, auditory, or olfactory systems, each having its own characteristics. Depending on the environment in which one finds themselves, the appropriate systems or systems will activate, sending signals to the brain to create a given memory.

Apart from these singular systems, the sensory register works in an unconscious, near-simultaneous fashion to detect immediate threats or danger via smell, touch, or emotion processing.

Short-Term Memory

As a type of memory creation that is temporary, short-term memory typically tends to last for a few seconds, such as when trying to recount information like a phone number or an individual’s name.

A standard short-term memory tends to dissipate within moments, and the individual is often unable to recall that information minutes or hours after it was first retained.

There is, however, a subset of short-term memory referred to as one’s working memory that can retain information for a longer period for manipulation purposes.

Long-Term Memory

Contrary to popular belief, long-term memory isn’t necessarily permanent or forever-lasting. It is, however, long-lasting, remaining in the brain for an extended period of time.

Long-term memory can be stored for a day or a lifetime, depending on how strong the neurological connections in the brain are during the time in which the memory is being stored.

Short-term and long-term memory, however different, are connected in that long-term memory tends to rely on working memory to recall associative information. During any given situation, the human experience relies on long-term memory via the retrieval of information from the working memory, something humans take for granted.

Improving Memory Formation

While much of how memories are formed is uncontrollable and largely unconscious, controlled instead by the complex mechanisms of the brain that even the most learned neuroscientists don’t yet understand, there are several things that can be done to improve the quality and duration of any given memory.

Depending on the tactic, these tactics and lifestyle factors may be more beneficial for short-term memory, long-term memory, or sensory registration.

One of the most important factors in memory formation and recall is sleep. Not only does sleep deprivation heavily impact the brain’s ability to store and recall information, but high-quality sleep does the opposite, promoting the process of memory consolidation.

Other lifestyle factors and day-to-day tactics that have been shown to promote memory formation include physical activity and exercise, diet and nutrition, and repetitive self-testing tactics.

As for things to avoid, stop the habit of multitasking and avoid potential distractions. These behaviors may impede the brain’s ability to strengthen neurons to store and recall important information.

Final Thoughts

Though memory is one of many complex mechanisms of the brain, it is a skill that can be improved through day-to-day habits and lifestyle factors.

Similarly, trouble recalling information and memory loss is often associated with related brain complications, injuries, or health conditions, such as neurological disconnections, concussions, or dementia.

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