Memory, A Torch Pass: How the Brain Gathers and Encodes Information

Human Brain information

Information and memory spans the human mind.

Despite the vast amount of information that we know, there is a surprising lack of information regarding the brain and how it works. At the very least we can agree that it is widely accepted  knowledge that the brain is the only organ to have named itself. That being said, we still have a very long way to go before we completely understand our think tanks. The study of memory is one of those intricacies of the brain which I expect we will all learn much more about in the very near future.

Memory is what humans use to hold on to information from the past. Important dates, ideas, and the number of surrounding cars around you while driving are all stored in either long, short, sensory or-as some are now saying-middle term memory.

Sensory memory is immediate.

This lasts for only a couple seconds at the most. Sensory memory acts a buffer between all information input from the senses. After making an impression the sensory information is carried to the short term memory for processing.

Short term (active) memory

The idea of short term memory simply means that you are retaining information for a short period of time without creating the neural mechanisms for later recall (e.g., obtaining and using a phone number from Directory Assistance.)

These memories are quick in and quick out. The brain decides whether or not remembering Jerry’s yellow bow tie is important information. If it isn’t important, it quickly forgets because the short term memory doesn’t really have a lot of room for holding information. If the brain decides “hey I like Jerry’s bow tie, I should take a second to remember that for later use,” then the brain’s long term memory will encode and store the memory.

Most adults can store between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory.  This idea was put forward by Miller (1956) and he called it the magic number 7. He though that short term memory could hold 7 (plus or minus 2 items) because it only had a certain number of “slots” in which items could be stored.

Short term memory is the ground floor for remembering any type of information. Another, more specific name for short term memory is ‘working memory.’ This puts more emphasis on its importance. Working memory does a lot more work than we are accustomed to giving it credit for. Here’s a nifty chart:

Working Memory information

Working memory handles a surprising amount of information processing.

The phonological loop is assumed to be responsible for the manipulation of speech based information, whereas the visuospatial sketchpad is assumed to by responsible for manipulating visual images.

In this model, the working memory is expanded to an active process which prioritizes information storage and retrieval. The central executive acts as the President of your memory. While you’re piloting your jet plane and having a conversation with your copilot about after-flight dinning plans, the central executive is prepared to switch your focus when turbulence rears its not-yet-existent face.

The central executive function works with the long term memory to encode and retrieve important memories. The long term memory can be broken down into three specific types of memory.

Episodic Memory

As its name suggests, this aspect of memory organizes information around episodes in our lives. When we try to recall the information, we attempt to reconstruct these episodes by picturing the events in our minds. Episodic memory enables us to recall not only events, but also information related to those events.

Think episodes of information. Remember that one time when you and your siblings…, the other time when one of your parents was chasing a…, or, my favorite, when your first grade teacher gave you a compliment on your haircut but you thought it was on your sweet Power Rangers sweater and you were mildly offended at her lack of taste which resulted in you never learning how to avoid a run-on sentence because, of course, that was what you were learning in class one day (deep breath).. Remember?!

Episodic memory stores information about images and events for later recall. These are the stories that you remember and can see in your mind.

Semantic Network Model

While episodic memory stores information as images, semantic memory stores information in networks or schemata. Information is most easily stored in semantic memory when it is meaningful – that is, easily related to existing, well-established schemata.

Semantic memory and episodic memory feed off of each other. You learn everything through experience so it would be silly to say that the two are independent. The primary difference between the two modes of information remembrance is that while episodic memory remembers the picture of events, semantic memory remembers the facts.

Semantic memory is a web of related memories. Try this: Think of a color. What do you immediately associate with that color?

I chose green. My immediate associations were: leaves, trees, grass, money, banks, pants, corporations, jail, and the presidential office. How these things are connected is the result of a lifetimes worth of associating different ideas with other different ideas. It really is a procedural sort of thing.

Procedural Memory

Procedural memory (“knowing how”) is the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things, particularly the use of objects or movements of the body, such as playing a guitar or riding a bike. It is composed of automatic sensorimotor behaviours that are so deeply embedded that we are no longer aware of them, and, once learned, these “body memories” allow us to carry out ordinary motor actions automatically.

Whether or not american children believe in the one true god, they-myself included- have been trained to know the pledge of allegiance. We have such a working knowledge of saying the pledge of allegiance that we could drone it in our sleep.

This is exactly what procedural memory is. It’s “muscle memory.” You do something so many times that you don’t think that you’re thinking about doing it anymore. (Try that one out, Bilbo).

How Sleep plays a role:

Sleep is vital to the process of storing memories. When you sleep, the amount of sensory input decreases dramatically. This decrease allows both your brain and your body to do a bit of house keeping. Memory, specifically, uses this time to protect and store as much information as possible.

We still understand very little of the brain’s inner workings. Entire philosophies, religions, cults, and other communities are designed in various ways to figure out and improve how the tock clicks- Maybe it’s the other way.

As this is a constantly developing field of research, this information will probably act as a stepping stone to further understanding how memory storage works.

If you have any links or information related to this post, we informationaholics at Wondergressive would love to read about it. You can comment, email, write a letter to your congress person, or even send a message in a bottle telling us what you know! Oh, and, without looking, can you remember what color the bow tie was?



Short Term Memory

Lecture slides from Anoka Ramsey Community college

Working Memory

Long Term Memory

Other Wondergressive Links:

Erase Memories, Because… “Why Not?”

Experiments in Photographic Memory (Phase 1: Guinea Pig)

AI Prescribes Better Treatment than Doctors


As America stares down the needle of an empty syringe called Healthcare, we are realizing with more tangible worry everyday that something must be done quickly to solve our medical woes. President Obama has offered solutions such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but we are all well aware now of the cracks in the already unsteady foundation of Obamacare. It doesn’t seem like any viable solution is available, so maybe the answer is to get creative, or even artificial.

In the spirit of bringing the singularity even closer to fruition, a study has found that artificial intelligence may be the answer to the issue at the forefront of political and social debate. Artificial intelligence (AI), aka the intelligence that will one day rule over us with the sweet aroma of logic and rationality (I choose to welcome our robotic overlords), has a history of impressing its human creators, even if one of the most powerful AIs in the world, IBM’s Watson, has a potty mouth.

Don’t let the word ‘artificial’ fool you: AI is smart, so smart that it has recently been shown to outperform doctors at their very job description; prescribing proper treatments. Using a combination of AI designs, namely Markov Decision Processes and Dynamic Decision Networks, researchers Casey Bennett and Kris Hauser from the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing have revealed that AI can consistently prescribe better treatment than doctors and dramatically save on healthcare costs.

The study considered 6700 patients, and randomly chose 500 from the group.  After comparing the results of AI doctors and human doctors, the researchers found that the AI improved patient outcomes by close to 50%, while reducing overall required healthcare costs from an average of $497 to $189, a difference of more than 50%.  We are talking about a 50% improvement in care, and a 50% reduction in costs; these are revolutionary results.

The specific AI that the researchers used in their study was able to think like a doctor.

By using a new framework that employs sequential decision-making, the previous single-decision research can be expanded into models that simulate numerous alternative treatment paths out into the future; maintain beliefs about patient health status over time even when measurements are unavailable or uncertain; and continually plan/re-plan as new information becomes available.

watson MD

The AI can think exactly like a doctor, the difference being that it can do it faster, and can review a patient’s entire history in the blink of an eye. It can also instantaneously factor in new information and compare that information with known and potentially unknown variables. The AI is faster, smarter, has a better memory, costs less, and doesn’t ever yell at its wife.  Moreover, while doctors must spend decades in school specializing in a specific field, AI is a highly trained doctor from birth, and does not require specialization to function optimally in all fields. Keep in mind, if new, relevant data becomes available, all it takes is a momentary upload and the AI has already integrated the new information into every aspect of its being.

Most medical decision made by doctors are based on individual, experience based-approaches, including using intuition. The researchers suggest that in the majority of cases, modeling, rather than case-by-case decision making, is a better solution in every way. The researchers not that:

Modeling lets us see more possibilities out to a further point, which is something that is hard for a doctor to do. They just don’t have all of that information available to them.


AI has a wealth of resources and computation speed at its disposal.  The researchers believe that

using the growing availability of electronic health records, health information exchanges, large public biomedical databases and machine learning algorithms…the approach could serve as the basis for personalized treatment through integration of diverse, large-scale data passed along to clinicians at the time of decision-making for each patient.

Keep in mind that the researchers are not insinuating a total removal of humans from medical professions, rather

even with the development of new AI techniques that can approximate or even surpass human decision-making performance, we believe that the most effective long-term path could be combining artificial intelligence with human clinicians. Let humans do what they do well, and let machines do what they do well. In the end, we may maximize the potential of both.

We are talking about the seamless and lightning fast integration of all medical knowledge and inquiry around the globe.  Instead of being treated by a single doctor, wouldn’t you rather be treated by the collective knowledge and understanding of every doctor that has ever existed?

If you are interested in additional reading regarding AI being used in healthcare, IBM has done extensive research into the matter using Watson.  Using AI like Watson to improve healthcare is becoming an exponentially growing potential.


Wondergressive: ObamaCare and the 49-Employee Company

Wondergressive: The Singularity is Nigh Upon Us

Fortune: Teaching IBM’s Watson the Meaning of OMG

Markov Decision Processes

Dynamic Decision Networks

Indiana University: Can Computers Save Healthcare? 

IBM: Watson and Healthcare

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There’s a name for these wonderful people by the way; Permies.

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