Don't forget to remember this


How does our memory work? What’s the difference between remembering how to ride a bike and recalling people’s names? Is it possible to improve your memory? An exhibition in the Science Gallery is looking for the answers, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL

REMEMBER A NAME but can’t match it with a face? Good with numbers but useless at childhood recollections? Led by Prof Shane O’Mara of Trinity College, Memory Lab is a month-long experience at Science Gallery in Trinity College, which invites the public to take part in a range of scientific experiments aimed at examining how our memory works.

Prof O’Mara and his team intend to put visitors to the test with a range of examinations looking at everything from short-term recollection to our first childhood memory. This is a chance to understand a little more about why we remember things in certain ways and how we can improve our memory over the course of our lifetime. The results of the tests will be collected and added to the studies already underway by Prof O’Mara and his team.

One area of particular interest is trying to determine when participants had their first significant memory and whether the memories we regard as our own are in fact real.

Remember your first day of school? Can you see yourself standing at the gate, waving your parents goodbye? If you can, then the likelihood is this is not your first real memory. What one set of experiments at the Memory Lab hopes to do is to quantify what it is people say are their first memories and look at which ones might be fake.

“People have a bad handle on when their earliest memory occurred,” says Prof O’Mara. “The literature is starting to say you don’t have much in the way of memories before the age of about four or five. You might have gist memory and implicit memories like the smell of your parents or general emotion and well-being. Explicit memories generally fall into stereotypical categories such as your first day in school, or when you fell off your bike.

“If you think about scenes you remember as a kid, are you looking at yourself in the scene? If you are, then this is not a memory you experienced,” says Prof O’Mara.

“We experience the world looking through our own eyes. You don’t view the world with you sitting or standing in a scene.

“Growing up, there are narratives and stories in families that go on for years. Every family has these. Often you remember things that you didn’t actually experience. For example, you can convince people to remember the day they got lost in a shopping centre, even though this may never have happened. After a while it becomes incorporated into memory.”

The man with no memory

Despite the ability of the brain to sometimes con us into believing certain memories are real, there is much to admire in the way human beings are able to store and sort life experiences. In the past 50 years, huge strides have been made in understanding how the mechanics of the brain works in relation to memory. This came partly because of patients who had had disorders that impacted on their recollections.

One such patient was Henry Gustav Molaison, or HM, as he is known in medical literature. “This amazing patient came to light in the 1950s,” says Prof O’Mara. “He had an Irish mother and a father from Louisiana where he lived. He had a terrible bicycle accident at the age of nine, and while he survived the accident he suffered very severe epileptic fits which progressed through his teenage years.”

It was decided the best solution was to operate on HM, and to remove part of his hippocampus, which was damaged. This is an area at the back of the brain which scientists knew little about in terms of its function. The operation was a dramatic success in one sense in that his fits went down from 50-100 a day to very few per year. But as a result of the operation HM suffered dramatic amnesia. He was 22 years old when he had the surgery and died in 2008, aged 82, and during that whole period he never again formed another explicit memory.

“He couldn’t remember a minute ago,” says Prof O’Mara. “He had to live in a protected home and he ended up being the most investigated patient in history. What he taught us is that there are at least two memory systems in the brain. There is a conscious memory system. So, for example, if I ask you what did you eat for breakfast, you can tell me what that is, such as porridge or toast or coffee or whatever. That is one type of memory, and one that you can articulate. We call that explicit memory.

“We also have a different type of memory called implicit memory, and HM was capable of learning an implicit memory. HM could play the piano or ride a bicycle. For example, if I ask you to describe cycling a bike, you’re going to tell me you get on the bike, you balance, you centre your mass on the saddle and you enter into a dynamic equilibrium with the environment. That’s useless – I have to learn it by doing it. I have to fall off and repeatedly expose myself to practice and this type of knowledge is inarticulate.”

This inarticulate memory system is one we are generally not aware of unless it is damaged in some way. Through examination, it was discovered that HM’s long-term memory was intact. He could recall his parents name or where he lived, and the knowledge he had acquired prior to surgery was still more or less preserved. Also interesting was that his short-term memory was normal. If he was given a telephone number and asked to repeat it back, he could do that. But if he was asked to learn the number off forever, he couldn’t do that despite rehearsing the information for hours at a time. His problem was one of translating short-term memory into long-term memory, and this discovery led us to understand much more in terms of how the brain works and how we connect different systems of memory.

The face test

I tried two of the Memory Lab tests. One involved viewing female faces and trying to memorise their names (basically a repeat of most of my teens), while the other meant looking at 300 images for half a second each and trying to remember as many as possible after. In between each test, a series of mental challenges were designed to disrupt my memory.

Administering the test was Dr Joanne Feeney, who has conducted studies into how memory is impacted on by the ageing process. The experiments are designed to be meaningful for the average person but at the same time tell the academics something interesting about memory and how it works. They are also meant to show the level of memory we should possess relative to our age – the hope is that the result will help build a comprehensive study after the event finishes.

I scored just above average on the female faces, getting five out of 10 in the first go and six out of 10 thereafter. The idea was to look at similar-looking black-and-white images and try to memorise the name of each female. It’s much trickier than it sounds and brought to mind that great Irish saying, “I’ll never forget what’s her name.”

The second task was much longer, involving 300 images flashing on the screen for half a second each, with a range of black-and-white and colour schemes. The images ranged from everyday domestic items and furnishings to fruits and outdoor buildings.

After some mental games, just 60 images were flashed on the screen and I had to decide whether or not I had seen the image before by pressing Yes or No. I scored 73 per cent, which was about normal for my age (34), but the interesting points were examining which images I thought had been included and how colour affects our memory.

“We are trying to focus on the aspects of memory that are important to the functioning of memory in a regular person. We also want to explore the fact that there is complex set of activities that have to be undertaken by the brain to remember things,” says Dr Feeney. The tests also offer a more in-depth way of exploring people who say they have a bad memory.

Individuals are often not the best judge of the capacity of their memory in relation to their age and level of education. Lapses in memory should not be confused as patterns or inherent conditions. Having a good memory is as much down to a solid night’s sleep, a proper diet, mental activity and stimulation and regular exercise, as it is any inherent ability to recall. In other words, jogging your memory requires sweat.

The memory experimentation at Science Gallery, Dublin 1, continues until April 8th. The experiments run Tuesday-Friday, noon to 8pm and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 6pm. Admission is free with a suggested donation of €5. For more information, go to

How we forget as we age

Dr Joanne Feeney, Trinity College Dublin

My research to date has focused on how memory declines as we age, and some of the factors that may influence this. While much ongoing research is devoted to better understanding memory changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions, investigation of “normal” age-related changes in memory in healthy individuals has received less attention.

Middle-aged adults, in particular, are an understudied group, with the majority of published data focusing on the performance of either young or old adults on various memory measures.

For my PhD, I studied the performance of adults aged from 18 to 65 years of age on computer-based tasks aimed at assessing two specific types of memory: associative memory and working memory. I also analysed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of young and middle-aged adults to see if there were differences in brain structure between these two age groups and whether there was any relationship between structure and performance on the memory tasks.

The results arising from this indicate that significant changes in memory performance are evident in middle age, at least in some facets of memory; and that further research is needed to investigate the factors that impinge on memory performance in this group. This is important because research has indicated that our experiences and health in middle age may have a considerable influence on mental and physical health in old age.

In future work I hope to increase the number of the participants studied considerably, and to examine memory performance in light of a host of other potentially important variables such as measures of health, general cognitive function and social engagement.

Top exam tips

Professor Shane O’Mara, Trinity College Dublin

There are a number of things you can do, including managing your lifestyle and your learning

MANAGING YOUR LIFESTYLE:It seems obvious, but it is worth saying time and time again. Getting lots of good quality sleep, regular aerobic exercise and eating properly are essential for the good functioning of brain and body. Sleep helps consolidate the topics learned during the course of the day, and helps with recall the next day.

Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants for the three or four hours before bed will help sleep quality too. Aerobic exercise reduces stress levels and helps the smooth functioning of the parts of the brain concerned with memory and attention. Eating a good diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, and keeping away from the sugar spikes caused by lots of soft drinks is vital for the good functioning of brain and body.

MANAGING YOUR LEARNING:The rules again are straightforward – when in the classroom or studying at home, pay effortful attention, in other words, concentrate. This is tiring, which is why you need good quality sleep to refresh the brain. Learning to concentrate is a skill, and like all skills, needs practice. You need to rehearse the material regularly, and take systematic and organised notes that you can refer to time and again. After learning your material, practice taking tests and exams, as doing this regularly and systematically will improve your exam performance. Doing a little study often (say every day) is much, much better than doing an intensive amount of study infrequently (say once a month).

In other words, two hours of study a day seven days a week is much, much, much better than fourteen hours one day per week (this is known as distributed practice). Having a regular and organised routine with a quiet space to study in is vital. Keeping a record of the work you have done, and comparing it to what you need to do is a good idea too, as this will give you an idea of your progress.

PLAN BETTER: Having a plan for tackling the material for exams and sticking to it is vital – but this plan should be realistic and adjusted as circumstances demand.

Don’t spend excessive time on topics you enjoy, and not time on topics you don’t – be sensible about studying across subjects. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn – as the theories and facts you are learning have something to stick to in your brain (what psychologists call a “conceptual scaffold” or “schema”). And over time what you are doing is learning to learn.