Dear Dr. Universe: How do we remember stuff? -Aidan, 11, Franklin, Indiana 

Dear Aidan,

Our brains have an incredible ability to help us remember all kinds of stuff. Of course, memory isn’t perfect. Sometimes we forget our homework or where we left our favorite cat toy.

My friend Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a scientist at Washington State University, is also very curious about memory. Her research focuses on using creative technology to help people who have serious memory loss.

She explained that an important part of how we remember has to do with our hippocampus. It’s a seahorse-shaped part near the middle of our brain that plays a role in forming new memories.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 9.05.13 AMHumans who have a missing or damaged hippocampus, like those in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, can’t form new memories, but they can still retrieve some of their old memories.

If you are anything like me, you know that a single smell, song, or picture can take you on a trip down memory lane.

In fact, your question reminded me of when I was first learning about our solar system.

I was having a tricky time remembering the order of the planets. Until I found out about this: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos.”

The first letter in each word helps you remember the names and order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. I repeated this phrase over and over again to help the new information stick.

Strategies like this can help us remember big chunks of information and lay them down as new memories.

Another important part of remembering is being really attentive to information as we learn it, Schmitter-Edgecombe said. A good night’s rest can help us stay alert during the day. Some scientists are even investigating questions about how sleep triggers changes in your brain that help memories solidify.

Schmitter-Edgecombe explained that once we attend to the information, we have to help get it into long-term memory.

One way to do this is to connect new information with something you already know. As you read, your brain may be making connections with other things that you’ve learned before. The connections between your brain cells strengthen and may make it easier to remember what you have read.

And we have quite a bit of space for our memories, too. According to the magazine Scientific American, if your brain worked like a TV’s digital video recorder, it would likely hold three million hours of TV shows. And it would need to be running for nearly 300 years to fill up all the storage space.

That makes strategies for remembering the important things even more useful. Creating songs, poems, or drawings can also help our brains create stronger connections to the new information. You could even try out a few of these memory devices and see what works best for you or your friends. Let me know what you discover at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,
Dr. Universe

Learn more about your amazing brain! Grab some tape, scissors, and print out this pattern to make your very own brain hat. 

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