Learning and Memory
According to Wickens (2005), "there is no learning without memory, although some memories can be innate such as instincts and basic reflexes" (p. 260). The process of learning is intricately interwoven with memory in a process that is constantly updated and modified throughout the lifespan (Wickens, 2005). Contemporary knowledge has enabled the understanding that human neural processes continue into old age, as long as there is active participation in thought processes (Wickens, 2005). The complex nature of the neural process is not easily understood, but by the continued study of all aspects of learning and memory, a greater understanding promotes new information (Wickens, 2005). New information provides a wider means of diagnosing and treating the dysfunction that interferes with vital memory and its ability to amass new information while storing the old (Wickens, 2005).
Neuroanatomy and Neural Processes of Learning and Memory
The neuroanatomy involved in learning and memory makes simplistic explanations difficult because of its complex nature and the vast amount of cells and structures involved (Wickens, 2005). Both processes have significant dependence on the chemical and electrical changes in the neuron synapse for learning and memory to transpire (Wickens, 2005). The cerebral cortex is our memory storage and the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system and plays a key role in storage and consolidation of long and short-term memory (Wickens, 2005). The cerebellum plays a role in acquiring procedural memory and motor learning such as driving a car or riding a bicycle (Wickens, 2005). The amygdala helps with transferring information from working memory into long-term memories and encodes emotional information into memories. The basal ganglia play a role in learning, memory, and unconscious memory processes that includes motor skills and implicit memory. Research has shown that part of the basal ganglia helps in the acquisition of stimulus-response habits and other problem solving.
Hebb described changes in the synapse that accounted for the consolidation of memory (Wickens, 2005). He described reverberations in the synapse that resulted in structural changes in the neurons that made up cell assemblies. He found that the synapses were strengthened as a result of learning and referred to this as the Hebbian synapse. Hebb proposed that the continued reverberation that causes the structural changes (long-term potentiation) explained how neurons encoded and stored memory (Wickens, 2005). Although not fully understood, recent studies have shown that the process of long-term potentiation begins with the release of glutamate from neurons that cross the synaptic gap and binds to hippocampal receptors. The receptors are activated and a series of chemical reactions take place wherein changes in the neurons are made (Wickens, 2005).
The Relationship between Learning and Memory
According to Wickens (2005), learning is the acquisition of new information, and memory is the capacity for storing and retrieving the information. Memory is a composite of our experiences and without learning and memory, there would be no coherent thought processes, language, or an ability to perceive our environment (Wickens, 2005). Learning occurs when new information is transferred into memory (Cherry, n.d.) Memory refers to the process by which people acquire, store, retain and later retrieve information and allows us to learn and interact (Cherry, n.d.). In the memory process, we encode information, store it for later use, and then retrieve it for future reference (Cherry, n.d.). Both learning and memory are influenced by experiences and other factors including environment, cognitive skills, culture, biological state, and social development (Cherry, n.d.). These factors also affect how people remember and store memories (Cherry, n.d.). Sensory information is received and is held in short-term memory for 20-30 seconds, after which information must be stored in long-term memory, or it is lost (Cherry, n.d.).
According to Bridge, Chiao, and Paller (2010), emotion is a significant factor that influences memory. In Emotional Context at Learning Systematically Biases Memory for Facial Information, the authors address how moods are interpreted and influence the processing and memory retention of specific stimuli (Bridge et al., 2010). Bridge et al., (2010) found a learning advantage associated with the recognition of happy faces compared with learning recognition of faces with apparent sad dispositions. In this and several experiments, the authors have broadened the perception of how memory has a basis in and is biased by several outside factors (Bridge et al., 2010). Regardless of the influence of these factors, memory systems must function for learning to occur, as learning implicates and necessitates memory (Wickens, 2005).
The importance of Lifelong Learning and Brain Stimulation
Engaging in lifelong learning and brain stimulation are essential for mental health in aging (Wickens, 2005). According to Wickens (2005), a study of nuns' brains that showed the nuns who were most articulate, wrote more complex sentences, and expressed the greatest number of ideas had a later onset of dementia (Wickens, 2005). New research on neurogenesis, indicates that neural pathways can be formed, even in later life (Wickens, 2005). According to Salthouse (2006), several studies have shown a positive relationship between activity levels and cognitive functioning. After studying the lifestyles and activities of older adults over the course of six years the results reflected activity was a significant predictor of several cognitive actions (Newson & Kemps, 2005).
Robert S. Wilson at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago, found new ways by which to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease in the aging population (Fernandez, 2007). His study found those who were cognitively active as they aged were 2.6 times less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer's disease than those inactive in old age (Fernandez, 2007). In addition, the study found that using more cognitive skills during old age was associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and a less rapid decline in the normal aging process (Fernandez, 2007). In summation, Wilson found that stress management and brain exercise are critical in combination with nutrition and physical exercise to maintain cognitive function and a better quality of life and sense of well being (Fernandez, 2007).
Learning and memory are inextricably intertwined, and without the combined processes that contribute to its acquisition and storage, there would be no coherent thought processes, language, or ability to perceive our environment (Wickens, 2005). Through the complex neural processes that transpire in the equally complex structures of the brain, humans manage to store immeasurable amounts of information for indefinite amounts of time. In their reciprocal relationship, one implicates and necessitates the other (Wickens, 2005). Although easy to take for granted, the ability to learn and remember is an integral part of the human ability to maintain a social network, build upon prior knowledge, and interact with the physical environment (Wickens, 2005). The life giving properties of learning and memory maintain quality of life, happiness, and a richer sense of well being throughout life into old age. As Wickens (2005) poignantly summed, "In short, without learning and memory we would be mentally and psychologically dead" (p. 228).
Bridge, D. J., Chiao, J. Y., & Paller, K. A. (2010). Emotional context at learning systematically biases memory for facial information. Memory and Cognition, 38(2), 125. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from ABI/INFORM.
Calabrese, V., Scapagnini, G., Stella, A. G., Bates, T. E., & Clark, J. B. (2001). Mitochondrial Involvement in Brain Function and Dysfunction: Relevance to Aging, Neurodegenerative Disorders and Longevity. Neurochemical Research, 26(6), 739-764. doi: 10.1023/A:1010955807739
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Memory - Overview of Memory. Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved November 02, 2010, from http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/memory.htm
Fernandez, A. (2007). Brain Exercise and Lifelong Learning for Alzheimer's Prevention Alzheimer Disease. Article Directory - Find, Search, Reprint & Submit Articles for Free. Retrieved November 02, 2010, from http://www.articlesphere.com/Article/Brain- Exercise-and-Lifelong-Learning-for-Alzheimer-s-Prevention/94361
Newson, R. S., & Kemps, E. B. (2005). General Lifestyle Activities as a Predictor of Current Cognition and Cognitive Change in Older Adults: A Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Examination. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 60(3), 113-120. doi: 10.1093/geronb/60.3.P113
Salthouse, T. A. (2006). Mental Exercise and Mental Aging. Evaluating the Validity of the "Use It or Lose It" Hypothesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(1), 68-87. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00005.x
Wickens A.P. (2005). Foundations of Biopsychology (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson/Prentice Hall.