6 Key Reasons Memories Are So Powerful

By Madelaine Romero - June 25, 2023
6 Key Reasons Memories Are So Powerful

What do you remember? Some memories are more powerful than others. 

Science shows that memories become more powerful for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Multiple Senses
  • Emotions
  • Rewards
  • Punishments
  • Practice
  • Replay

Each of these reasons imprints and strengthens memories within the brain. They also help explain why some memories are so powerful.

1. Multiple Senses

The more senses you use to experience something, the more powerful your memory of it will be. Scientists use food as the prime example of powerful memories associated with all your senses. Remember the first time you ate apple pie? Your brain recorded:

  • The sweet smell
  • How the pie looked
  • How the pie tasted
  • The sound of chewing the pie
  • The texture of the crust and filling

Whether you like apple pie or not, each of these sensations helped integrate the experience into your memory. According to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, each part of the sensory experience layers the memory, making it a full and powerful memory to recall.

2. Emotions

Memories that are tied to emotions are potent. In the apple pie example, if your beloved grandmother made the pie for you, the memory of eating it might include how special and loved she made you feel. Your feelings associated with eating apple pie make it a powerful memory.

Research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology shows that emotions have a strong influence on human thought, including:

  • Perception
  • Attention
  • Learning
  • Reasoning
  • Problem Solving

Research shows that emotion focuses attention, a critical component of memory. When you experience strong emotions, you pay more attention to the details of the experience. The additional details you notice make the memory of the experience very powerful.

3. Rewards

Scientists believe that experiences tied to rewards create powerful memories that last throughout life. In an experiment published in The Journals of Gerontology, both young and old participants equated high monetary rewards with expensive items. Regardless of age, the participants remembered the costs of items and associated them with high financial gain. 

Parents and teachers use rewards to motivate children to learn both factual knowledge and society accepted behavior. Getting an “A” on a test is a reward. Earning a treat for saying please is also a reward. The association of a reward with memory makes it a powerful way to enforce what was learned.

4. Punishments

The opposite of associating a reward with memory is associating punishments with memory. Parents and teachers also use this method to create powerful memories. Being sent to the Principal’s office or being grounded are punishments used to reinforce memory.

In the journal Cortex, researchers state that punishments work because they focus attention on unwanted behavior results. Since science shows that attention helps strengthen memory, punishments are a useful technique to remind someone what not to do. Psychologists believe rewards and punishments must be fair and balanced to form powerful memories that influence behavior and learning.

5. Practice

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology studied the effect of practice in mice. They found that when mice tried something new, like a new maze pattern, their brains used a small portion of neurons, or brain nerve cells, to record the memory. 

The more often they did the maze, the more neurons were used each time. The additional neurons helped strengthen the memory of how to navigate the maze so that over time, it became easy for the mice to complete it. When you practice something, the memory becomes more powerful with each repetition.

6. Replay

Like physical practice, mentally replaying situation helps create powerful memories. Examples include:

  • Athletes who watch recordings of previous games
  • Mentally reviewing a recipe before cooking
  • Reviewing notes before a tests or presentation

Researchers have found that mentally replaying a situation increases the neurons focused on the memory at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology funded by the Belgium government. The additional brain activity reinforces and creates a powerful memory.

Memories are so powerful because of the way they are encoded into the brain. By using multiple senses, evoking strong emotions, and offering reward and punishment, memories become powerful. Physical and mental practice also creates powerful memories. 


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