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Friday, September 23, 2011

Memory and language

Alma Dzib Goodin

When we talk about memory, in general is associated with the past and memories, however, memory has a lot to do with language, because while we structure a phrase, many temporal associations are carried out either at present, past or future. I don't think is necessary explaining too much this aspect, since everybody suffers with   verbal conjugation at the first years of formal education.

And this is because the brain is constantly influenced by spatial and temporal patterns across of all the senses (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004), and then we say, of course, I had read that!, or it tastes like ... and ate it at....

During a conversation, is important to pay attention if you are talking in present tense, past or future, since this depends on the structure and meaning of the sentence. Of course, this is not knowledge that a newborn uses from day 1, it's one of the many tasks to be learned over time, related with brain maturation, environmental demands and verbal skills, some of them imposed by genetics.

Then, how can a brain work with multitasks?. It does this primarily by electrical impulses that travel through the synaptic connections, that are fired every 5 milliseconds, which work  parallelizing tasks, I mean, it does many things at once and at different levels, it performs tasks consciously and others unconsciously and also pay attention to the environment and the details (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004; Glöckner and Witteman, 2009).

But if focus at the language, the maximum achievement of the neocortex is the grouping of ideas, which can occur in prospective, this is, think ahead. During a conversation, we can predict what the speaker will say or do, this is an important process not only for language, but when we are driving a car, or watching a movie, which is an aspect of memory (Brewer and Marsh, 2010).

And of course, it's not possible ignore the great speed with which it is possible to remember something when the stimulation and the conditions are right. This is called reaction time in laboratory experiments, but that is pure fun when we play table games that require a unique quick response, which of course is a process that requires an active memory and familiarity of stimuli (Brewer and Gimbel, 2011).

But I guess, you reader   know your strengths in aspects of memory. Despite what teachers say that we must remember everything they say, our brain has something else in mind (that is literally). And while some people have better visual memory, and can remember what they saw or read just once and remember the name of the author of the book or article they read, there are some others who remember much better if the stimuli are auditory, and they learn to read loud to retrieve information better. There are also those who remember motor tasks and they are able to remember things when they do a movement. And I can not forget to mention my deep admiration for those who can recognize flavors, or the aroma of fine wine or a good meal.

Tasks that seem simple become complex when we try to explain them, for example, the recognition of faces is a complex but essential aspect in life. This process begins in the first days of life; it depends on the maturity of the oculomotor muscles and provides assurance that the caregiver is always the same. But it’s not the only one, because the sense of smell provides protection while babies develop the ability to focus objects. Thus, little by little they are making a complex network of processes that, with no doubt, help  to let us to know that we talk to someone we  know.

So, How do you remember a face?, Is it remembered or recognized?, this will be  another topic, that I will take as a  excuse to write again, but the fact is that  process is complicated: it starts with the rapid identification of the face, if it has similar racial characteristics, this can be a first  kind of identification, if not, you will have to considerate many details: the color of eyes, its location, shape, distance between them, the characteristics of each one and then the shape of the face, color, contour, form hair, color of the eyebrows, lips, cheekbones (Ewing, Pellicano and Rhodes, 2010), thus intersect other details such as whether the person is attractive, if we recognize that person and then, maybe we will try to find a  name in the library of memory, making a comparison  between face, name and a location where that person have seen  before.... and all that will be done in millisecond,

Of course, sometimes the process is not accurate, and the identification finishes with no an idea who is speaking with us. And even in that case, you can try some  clues as: if the other person knows or not my name?, the topic of conversation?, If I talk about this then I know this place, other clues can be the tone of voice, familiarity ... the system continues the search until it can  finds a positive recognition ... but you don't have to feel shamed if all the process fails, it may be easier to recognize the voice, or other aspects, such as recognizing the other person car, bag, shoes? ... each person is inclined to recognize objects in the environment in a distinctive manner.

In general, though not exclusively, men are capable of distinguishing details between cars, a Porsche and a Lamborghini are not equal, a Prius and Acura are not similar at all, and Who can confuse a beetle and an MDX?. Personally, I only know that cars have wheels and need gasoline, sometimes.

But vision is not always the main form of recognition. I used to feel worry  the first few times I waited for him at the airport, for who is now my husband, I was not able to make a mental image of his face. I only remember he had blue eyes and red hair. So I just could wait for someone with these features, but it was a challenge. The only consolation was that maybe he could recognize me, and when that happened, his voice did not let me any doubt, he was the right person.

Of course, once the recognition is done, the face has a name ... the vision is related to language when is trying to tie a memory. When everything matches, it's not necessary more searching at the data banks, all features are tied, but the issue is more complex than it seems, because although all that is accomplished in a few seconds, the search for the information needs of different brain areas and all information is concentrated in the hippocampus (Ewing, Pellicano and Rhodes, 2010).

If a task as simple and everyday as face recognition takes so much work, just enough to imagine the process of recognition of words, tense, voice tones, volume, modulation and content during a conversation.

Starting from the idea that thought is private and language is public, and then speak is making public the private. (In so many years, I can not remember from whom I learned this in my first years at university). However, both processes are completely different. But this  is conceivable under the multi-tasking system, because while we feel good or bad with  the external temperature, we plan activities for the next few hours or the next day, make a to do list, we feel hunger, we make mental notes of what to say on the next business meeting, we try to remember if we fed the cat and locked  the closet door or if we turn off the light ... the tasks can be endless, but, language only accepts the execution of a letter at a time, to form a word that is part of a sentence, to form an idea, and is able to link with the following (Weimer and Palermo, 1974).

We remember  what it was said, what is being said and what we are going to say,  or we can predict the next sentence, in studies  of laboratory, researchers try to see  separate processes, but in everyday life, they  are seemingly inseparable.

And all this has been learned in daily interaction, even before a first word can be said, and when babies start practicing, of course they make verbal mistakes, because their memory is not consolidated yet. But nobody cares about these failed attempts; adults encourage toddler to try it again, and again.

Different brain areas are used depending the kind of speech, for example, if we are talking about colors, there is an isolated portion of the brain that needs to be involved, but if we are trying to do a voice recognition, or shapes, other areas must work together, because all processes are separated, and then re grouped into the brain, but yet it's not possible to understand how this is possible.

That's why learning in children, can not be based only in isolated memorization and meaningless, specially because there is a specific area where all information must be joined and summarized to give sense to the world. But on the other hand, remembering can be   too inconvenienced because when an area of the brain is over specialized, it means another area is compressed, and this can be the case of talented or gifted children for whom the neocortex is the raw material in exchange for neglecting the social skills (Herbert, 2005).

The clearest case of this are  people with a diagnosis of Savant Syndrome, whom are able to remember very little details of what captures their attention, but sometimes with an IQ less than 50 (Winner, 1998).

Remembering then, depends on the attention, of environmental stimulation and the hippocampal ability to recognize tasks (Brewer and Gimbel, 2011). Does it seem complex?, Well, if you  try to explain it using only electrical impulses, bio chemicals, neural connections and a little knowledge of neurophysiology, if it is, but it's an activity that every brain does every  day, every second each day of our lives ...

Alma Dzib Goodin 

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Brewer, G. and Marsh, RL. (2010) On the role of episodic future simulation in encoding of prospective memories. Cognitive Neuroscience. 1 (2) 81-88.

Brewer, JB. and Gimbel, SI. (2011) Reaction time, memory strength, and fMRI activity during memory retrieval: Hippocampus and default network are differentially responsive during recollection of familiarity judgments. Cognitive Neuroscience. 2 (1) 19- 26.

Ewing, L., Rhodes, G. and Pellicano, E. (2010) Have you got the look? Gaze direction affects judgment of facial attractiveness. Visual cognition. 18 (3) 321-330.

Glöckner, A. and Witteman, C.  (2009) Beyond dual- processes model: A categorization of processes underlying intuitive judgment and decision making. Thinking and reasoning. 16 (1) 1-25.

Hawkins, J., and Blakeslee, S. (2004) On intelligence. Times Books. USA.

Herbert, M. (2005) Large brains in autism: the challenge or pervasive abnormality. The Neuroscientist. 11 (5) 417-440.

Molinaro, N., Conrad, M., Barber, H. and Carreiras, M. (2010) On the Functional Nature of the N400: Contrasting effect related to visual word recognition and contextual semantic integration. Cognitive Neuroscience. 1 (1) 1-7.

Pendarvis, E., Howley, A., & Howley, C. (1990) The abilities of gifted children. Prentice Hall. USA.

Weimer, W. and Palermo, DS. (1974) Cognition and the symbolic processes. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. USA.

Winner, E. (1998) Uncommon Talents: Gifted Children, Prodigies and Savants. Scientific American Presents. 32-37.

3D Image: Juan Conde Tovany


  1. Dana Salazar ArchundiaJanuary 25, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    I found this article and I appreciate so much to hlep me to clarify the process