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From birth to our early teens, we have far more links between brain cells. The excess brain mass is very adaptable and allows children to learn very quickly.
But the adaptability comes with a price. The large and complex network in the brain is still busy growing and not as capable of forming memories efficiently as in adulthood. Consequently, long-term memories created in our first three years of life are the least stable and prone to be forgotten as we age.
Studies revealed that the circuits of neurons that store our earliest memories are not eliminated by neurogenesis—the growth of whole new neurons - but that they are wholly restructured, making it difficult to recall first memories.
This means that some childhood memories are missing while others persist in a patchy way.
Even if we do have a few distinct memories that survive the cycles of growth and decay, we can never fully trust them. Some may be entirely fabricated.
The research demonstrated that our earliest memories are a blend of real recollections, stories we copied from others, and imaginary scenes dreamt up by the subconscious.
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We all can form complex false memories in us, and it can even impact our decision making and future behavior. Planting false memories in a person can be used to tackle certain disorders like obesity and alcoholism.
Memory researchers have concluded that it is possible to induce fictional memories of the past in volunteers and even make them believe in some past criminal deeds that never happened.
False memories are a challenge in legal cases, as they are indistinguishable from real memories, with any distortion being undetectable.
Certain regression therapies where patients confront their buried childhood memories are prone to ‘implantation’ of false memories in their minds.
Any system or device designed to aid memory:
We hold on to different kinds of memories.
By studying people with amnesia, it seems that short-term and long-term memories don't form in precisely the same way, nor do declarative and procedural memories.
Memories are held within groups of neurons called cell assemblies. They fire as a group in response to a specific stimulus, such as recognising your friend's face.
The more neurons fire together, the more the interconnection of the cells strengthen. We experience the nerves' collective activity as a memory.