Mental Health Disorders

Where does the brain store our memories?
Answered by Chris Jordan and Science Channel
  • Chris Jordan

    Chris Jordan

  • Science Channel

    Science Channel

  1. You've got a lot of memories swimming around in your head.  There's the memory of your first kiss.  There's the memory of how to beat Slash in Guitar Hero III.  You've even got memories you don't really think about -- like the memory of what every vocabulary word you've ever learned means.

    These examples represent the different types of memories hanging around in your head.  That memory of you making out behind the baseball diamond?  That's an episodic memory, meaning it's an event that plays in your head like a soap opera.  Knowing how to beat Guitar Hero?  That's a procedural memory because it's a skill you learned that you don't think about anymore.  And your ability to define antidisestablishmentarianism?  You can do that because the word lives in your semantic memory, the part of the brain that stores fact-based knowledge.  You've even got another type of memory -- working memory -- that you're using right now in order to read this sentence.  You have to retain the first part of a sentence in your working memory in order to understand the second half.  Each of these types of memory lives in different parts of the brain.

    Since you know that you've got different types of information in your head and you know that each type is stored in a different area, it's tempting to think of memory as if it were a filing cabinet.  If all of these memories were written on business cards and scattered on your desk, you might file them in a Rolodex.  Whenever you wanted to remember one, you'd simply flip to the "episodic" memory part of that Rolodex, for instance, and re-read a card.  Voila: instant memory retrieval.  If only it were really that simple.

    Science tells us that while our brain may store different types of memories in various areas of the brain, recalling a memory is a brain-wide process.  Take playing Guitar Hero, for instance.  The memory of how to use the controller comes from one set of brain cells.  The memory of the game's rules comes from another part of your brain.  And that anxious feeling you get when you start missing too many notes and feel like you're dangerously close to losing?  That's from yet another part.  When you play the game, you're not aware of using all these memories, but your brain is putting them all together so you can reign supreme over Slash.  What seems like one simple memory is actually a complex creation.  And scientists are only just beginning to understand how the brain can make one complete memory out of so many complex thoughts.

    brain model
    (Stockbyte/Getty Images)

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  2. Types of memories and where they are stored in the brain include:

    • Semantic memory: General knowledge, trivia and facts are stored in the temporal lobe and the cortex.
    • Episodic memory: New data and recent events are stored in the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobe.
    • Working memory: Information and knowledge required for daily life -- such as telephone numbers and learned skills like driving -- are stored in the prefrontal cortex.
    • Procedural memory: Secondhand skills, things we take for granted, such as walking and cycling, are stored in the cerebellum.


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