The memories of man. Part one

We can affirm, as we will see below, that the memory of each one of us begins within us and continues in our environment with which we interact continuously. In other words, our memory cannot be understood as an organ that fulfills a function, but as a set of multiple activities of various kinds aimed at updating in our thinking information that is not present in consciousness.

It is both an individual and collective memory, and both individually and socially we alter it as we evoke it.


But before we speak of internal and external memory we must make a brief note about short-term memory and long-term memory

Short memory and long-term memory

The psychologist William James (1890) was the first to make a formal distinction between both memories.

Short-term memory is the system where the individual handles the information from which he is interacting with the environment. This information is limited to approximately 7 to 9 items for 30 seconds (memory span) if not reviewed.

The general functions of this memory system include retention of information, support in learning new knowledge, understanding the environment at a given moment, formulating immediate goals and solving problems. Due to capacity limitations, when a person performs a certain function, the others cannot be performed at that time.

The working memory or operational memory consists of several subsystems, namely: a supervisory system (the central executive) and two secondary stores specializing in verbal information (the phonological loop to be discussed later) and visual or spatial information (the visuospatial sketchpad).

Long-term memory is a store referred to when we commonly speak of memory in general. It is where memories are stored, our knowledge about the world, images, concepts, strategies of action, etc.

It has unknown capacity and contains information of different nature. It is considered the “database” in which the information is inserted through the working memory, for later use.

Once the introduction on the short and long term of the memory, we return to the beginning: internal and external memory:

The internal memory

Memory as a function arises in the brains of living beings when, in a competitive environment, they have to move to obtain food and reproduce and avoid being hunted by other beings (Coolidge, 2009). Thus, the main function of a brain is to protect against environmental variability through the use of memory as well as other cognitive strategies that will allow an organism to find the resources necessary to survive, especially during periods of scarcity (see our article on natural selection).

The passing of time allows us to store in this internal memory useful knowledge (wisdom) transmissible from one generation to the next.

The accumulated information of the experience allows a better decision-making, and therefore, greater survival since a system of memory (of work and episodic) allows, not only to remember (episodes), but also to simulate futures (episodes), and for therefore, anticipate and plan.

Neuropsychology relates emotionally to memory formation, and with it, the role of the amygdala (see our article on the psychology of music).

Memory in our environment

At some point in the evolutionary history of homo sapiens, we crossed a threshold when we had enough brain information to produce culture and art.

Some sociobiologists define culture as a kind of unity of mind that is independent of bodies (meme: an idea, behavior or style that extends from person to person within a culture). Proponents of the concept consider memes as cultural analogues to genes in which they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. The culture and brains that support it entered a sort of positive feedback loop and the best brain in propagating memes was successful (Wilson, 1975).

Memory forms

We can agree on the existence of various forms of memory, although there may be more or some of them may be redundant to some extent (redundancy is also a positive value in the field of information and communication):

  • Genetic memory
  • Semantic memory
  • Linguistic memory
  • Cultural memory
  • Biocultural memory
  • The patrimonial and landscape memory

Genetic memory from the point of view of biology

Genetic or atavistic memory is a concept that describes a variety of processes by which the genetic material (DNA/genome) gives a stable history of an individual or a specie when inherited through cell division (mitosis or meiosis).

In biology, memory is present if the state of a biological system depends on its history in addition to the present conditions.

In population genetics and evolution, genetic memory represents the recorded history of adaptive changes in a specie.

A recent study at Emory University suggests that the memories of our parents can be inherited; Even from our grandparents. The experimenters trained mice so that they would shake with fear when they perceived a certain smell. The children, also the grandchildren of these mice, exhibited the same reaction to that scent, despite never having smelled it.

Genetic memory from the point of view of Psychology

In psychology, genetic memory is a memory present from birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and which is incorporated into the genome over long periods of time. It is based on the idea that common experiences of a species end up incorporated in its genetic code, not by a Lamarckian process that encodes specific memories but as a way of codifying a predisposition to respond to certain stimuli. This theory is invoked to explain the racial or ancestral genetic memory postulated by Carl Jung (see the concept of collective unconscious that we treated in our post on unconscious processes of the organization).

Inheritance of instincts

A behavior is something that an organism does or a response that an organism has to a change in its environment. Animal behaviors can be instinctive (inherited) or learned. Instincts are inherited behaviors. Instincts do not have to be taught. Breathing, blinking, hibernating some animals, migrating some animals, sleeping patterns, roots growing on the ground and plants growing toward the light are examples of instincts.


To be continued…


If you want to know a little bit more…


Barret-Ducrocq, F. (Editor) (2002) ¿Por qué recordar? Academia Universal de las culturas. Ediciones Granica SA, 2002.

Coolidge, F.L. y Wynn, T. (2009) The Rise of Homo sapiens. The Evolution of Modern Thinking. Wiley-Blackwell.

Pinker, S. (2015) How the mind Works. Penguin.

Baddeley, A.D. (1983) Working Memory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 302, No. 1110. Functional Aspects of Human Memory (Aug. 11, 1983), 311-324.


Other web pages of interest on the subject: