Whole Brain
Ment Illness
Med School

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Short and Long Term Memory

Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

Accumulating a fund of knowledge is an important aspect of mental development.

Events can be stored in short-term memory, which can last from a few moments to a few days; or long term memory, which can last a lifetime.

These are entirely different biological processes.  Long term memory data is permanently embedded into the brain cells, where as short term memory data is not.

Whether or not certain events or information is placed in long term memory is dependent upon an individual's love for the subject matter and it's dramatic, emotional, auditory, and visual impact.  For example, it is common to effortlessly remember the scenes of an engrossing movie for many decades.  However, a concerted effort to memorize dry, irrelevant data on a page usually results only in short-term recall.

Through the use of rote learning methods - lengthy, repetitive study of written words - schools attempt to coerce students to force information into their long-term memory. This produces only the illusion of knowledge: increasing test scores.  Such a process, however, is extremely stressful and inefficient: It does not utilize the whole brain, and results in more harm than benefit.

In today's world, the student's mind becomes split into two separate, disconnected spheres.  While the left brain is used for school, the right brain and limbic system are utilized for activities that take place outside of school.  The student never has the opportunity to use these spheres in cooperation.  In his mind, work and play become vast opposites - two diametrically opposed entities.  He cannot imagine a world in which they could become one and the same.

When children play, it often takes the form of work.  They might play 'house' or build things, often with the fantasy that it is real.

If education simultaneously involved all parts of the brain - in a manner  of the student's choosing and without pressure to please someone else - work and play would become one.  If, however, fear is the most powerful motivating factor in our present educational system, work and play can never be unified.  Not only are tests and grades tools of control, they are also tools of fear.

The basal ganglia, large structures deep within the brain, control the intensity of mental activity.  When a human is under extreme pressure, his brain shifts to "emergency mode."

The brain is only meant to enter this mode for very short periods of time, and generally does so only in a time of great danger.  For example, an individual would enter this mode if being attacked by an animal.

But students - under pressure and excessive stress that persists for months and years - the brain can develop this mode of functioning as a habit.  Over time, these individuals are driven into a hyperactive state, which is beyond their control.

A person's brain can perceive his situation as being under siege from forces threatening his very survival, even when those forces are absent.  If this state of chronic fear and hyperactivity - emergency mode - becomes a habit, it will eventually prove damaging to his health.  Even after an individual leaves school, events that occur later in his life may needlessly trigger the emergency response.

An extensive, relevant fund of information is important to success later  in life, but must be acquired in a manner consistent with healthy whole-brain functioning.

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