Long-term memory is, obviously enough, intended for storage of information over a long period of time. Despite our everyday impressions of forgetting, it seems likely that long-term memory actually decays very little over time, and can store a seemingly unlimited amount of information almost indefinitely. Indeed, there is some debate as to whether we actually ever “forget” anything at all, or whether it just becomes increasingly difficult to access or retrieve certain items from memory.
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| While older people have more difficulty than the young with rote memorization, such as remembering lists of words or numbers, they actually tend to perform better than young people in the recognition and recall of facts and tasks.|
This is partly because older people, having accumulated more real-life experience and information, have a denser network of linkages and associations in their long-term memory, and partly because they have had time to more efficiently organize their facts and experiences in a more easily accessible hierarchical form.
Short -term memories can become long-term memory through the process of consolidation, involving rehearsal and meaningful association. Unlike short-term memory (which relies mostly on an acoustic, and to a lesser extent a visual, code for storing information), long-term memory encodes information for storage semantically (i.e. based on meaning and association). However, there is also some evidence that long-term memory does also encode to some extent by sound. For example, when we cannot quite remember a word but it is “on the tip of the tongue”, this is usually based on the sound of a word, not it’s meaning.
Physiologically, the establishment of long-term memory involves a process of physical changes in the structure of neurons (or nerve cells) in the brain, a process known as long-term potentiation, although there is still much that is not completely understood about the process. At its simplest, whenever something is learned, circuits of neurons in the brain, known as neural networks, are created, altered or strengthened. These neural circuits are composed of a number of neurons that communicate with one another through special junctions called synapses. Through a process involving the creation of new proteins within the body of neurons, and the electrochemical transfer of neurotransmitters across synapse gaps to receptors, the communicative strength of certain circuits of neurons in the brain is reinforced. With repeated use, the efficiency of these synapse connections increases, facilitating the passage of nerve impulses along with particular neural circuits, which may involve many connections to the visual cortex, the auditory cortex, the associative regions of the cortex, etc.
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| Several studies have shown that both episodic and semantic long-term memories can be better recalled when the same language is used for both encoding and retrieval.|
For example, bilingual Russian immigrants to the United States can recall more autobiographical details of their early life when the questions and cues are presented in Russian than when they are questioned in English.
This process differs both structurally and functionally from the creation of working or short-term memory. Although the short-term memory is supported by transient patterns of neuronal communication in the regions of the frontal, prefrontal and parietal lobes of the brain, long-term memories are maintained by more stable and permanent changes in neural connections widely spread throughout the brain. The hippocampus area of the brain essentially acts as a kind of temporary transit point for long-term memories and is not itself used to store information. However, it is essential to the consolation of information from short-term to long-term memory and is thought to be involved in changing neural connections for a period of three months or more after the initial learning.
Unlike with short-term memory, forgetting occurs in long-term memory when the formerly strengthened synaptic connections among the neurons in a neural network become weakened, or when the activation of a new network is superimposed over an older one, thus causing interference in the older memory.
Over the years, several different types of long-term memory have been distinguished, including explicit and implicit memory, declarative and procedural memory (with a further sub-division of declarative memory into episodic and semantic memory) and retrospective and prospective memory.