This view of memory creates some problems. For one thing, closets can get crowded. Things too easily disappear. Even with the biggest closet, you eventually run out of space. If you want to pack some new memories in their-well, too bad. There’s no room.
Brain researchers have shattered this image to bits. Memory is not a closet. It’s not a place or a thing. Instead, memory is a process.
On a conscious level, memories appear as distinct and unconnected mental events: words, sensations, images. They can include details form the distant past – the smell of cookies baking in your grandmother’s kitchen or the feel of sunlight warming your face through the window of your first-grade classroom.
On a biological level, each of those memories involves millions of nerve cells, or neurons, firing chemical messages to each other. If you could observe these exchanges in real time, you’d see regions of cells all over the brain glowing with electrical charges at speed that would put a computer to shame.
When a series of cells connects several times in a similar pattern, the result is a memory. Psychologist Donald Hebb uses the ophorism “Neurons which fire together, wire together” to describe this principle. This means that memories are not really “stored.” Instead, remembering is a process in which you encode information as links between active neurons that fire together. You also decode, or reactivate, neurons that wired together in the past.
Memory is the probability that certain patterns of brain activity will occur again in the future. In effect, you re-create a memory each time you recall it.
Whenever you learn something new, your brain changes physically by growing more connections between neurons. The more you learn, the greater the number of connections. For all practical purposes, there’s no limit to how many memories your brain can encode.