Memory – structure, function and tips for improving memory performance

Neurobiologist Martin Korte sees memory as the core of human life. He writes that without this we would not be us. Memories would therefore determine “[…] who and what we are and what we share with others.” Without our memory, we would not be able to understand what distinguishes a human personality. According to the author, the brain is not a static organ, since the neuronal substrate is constantly changing through memory processes.

According to Korte, anyone who wants to understand the essence of man must understand our ability to remember. (Image: Tatiana Shepeleva /

Table of Contents

  • Genes or experience?
  • The autobiographical memory
  • To remember is to reconstruct
  • Time means me
  • Early gaps in memory
  • The first-person narrator
  • Creating memories
  • Present or past?
  • The mood creates the experience
  • Habit, addiction, routine
  • Return
  • Perceptual memory
  • Intuition – the fast memory
  • prejudices
  • Korte inspires self-reflection
  • Limit prejudice
  • Addiction
  • Outsmart bad habits
  • The store grows with its abundance
  • A dream comes true: learning while sleeping
  • Lucid dreams
  • Tricks and training
  • Conclusion

Genes or experience?

Korte considers the question of whether our genes determine us or life experience. According to the neurobiologist, research in recent years has shown that we are shaped much more by what we have experienced, learned and stored than by genetic factors.

According to Korte, anyone who wants to understand the essence of man must understand our ability to remember. (Image: Tatiana Shepeleva /

Memory gives a key to the essence of man, this age-old question of philosophy, says Korte and writes: “But if you want to answer the question” What is man “(Ecce homo?), You have to understand our ability to remember, because that is it Memory that links biology with culture, (…) cemented nature with nurture (experiences). ”According to the anthropologist David Bidney, this is what distinguishes humans from other animals, their development primarily through their biological system is conditioned, while humans have the greatest range of skills because they shape themselves.

The autobiographical memory

An autobiographical memory is the memories and experiences that a human individual gains in his own life. However, this does not stand alone, but is tied to social relationships – the autobiographical memory is a social memory: “For us individually, memory is of essential importance, but it only manifests itself in a social context: it is a prerequisite and means of communication – with ourselves, with others and across time as a culture. ”

According to Korte, the autobiographical is part of long-term memory. Here we store episodes of our life in first person perspective. Source memory, i.e. the memory of the origin of a memory, also falls under autobiographical memory.

The hippocampus still forms nerve cells up to the age of six – until its fornix tract is fully functional. This is probably necessary in order to mark individual experiences in time. Our lives are constantly lined up with learning situations in which all memory systems interlock.

According to Korte, learning, memory and feelings are closely related to one another in terms of brain anatomy, and this explains why an emotional state that corresponds to the mood at the time of the memory makes it easier to recall this memory. He speculates whether the “time machine in our head” significantly accelerated human evolution and whether the Neanderthals might not have been able to pass on knowledge in the same way.

The time travel functions from a first-person perspective both in the past and in the future. Memory processes would not only have the function of reminding us of our childhood days, but also of predicting the future based on our experiences.

In this way, the same structures are active in the brain when we review the past as when we plan the future. The medial temporal lobe is activated as well as the medial part of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus.

To remember is to reconstruct

The hippocampus would relate events using their spatial memory. Only through this space-time continuum in the hippocampus could we remember events in our life in the correct order. Space and time could sort in the hippocampus. Only through this protocol of the cornerstones of our lives could we reconstruct autobiographical memories.

“Remembering is not retrieving saved, finished images (performances), but rather resembling a prehistoric man from the remains of the bones found during excavations,” says Korte.

When remembering the past, the same structures are active in the brain as when we are planning something future. (Image: Gabriele Rohde /

Such re-constructions are dependent on the circumstances, the emotions during remembering and events that shaped the personality. The memory process itself intervenes in the stored memories and adapts them to autobiographical memories. So when we remembered, we changed the memories. As a result, the memories always provided a reference to current events and facts and experiences could be recalled through associations.

Time means me

According to the neurobiologist, we can only develop an autobiographical self by placing the elements of our memories in a temporal relationship. The memory presumably serves to plan the future by visualizing the stored information, we would modify past events with subsequent ones, and we would always modify our autobiographical memories. These autobiographical memories are what we call our lives.

Early gaps in memory

In the memory of adults, early childhood is largely in the dark. Most of the time we only remember things that happened after we were three years old, explains the author. We remembered more and more events after our sixth birthday. This phenomenon is called “childlike amnesia,” says Korte.

Today, neurobiology contradicts Freud, who attributes this fact to the repressing. But it turns out that we did not suppress our memories of the early days, but that we had not developed them as small children. Before the age of three, the brain regions for storing autobiographical memories were not yet fully integrated into the brain circuits, especially not in the hippocampus and its information line.

Newborns could already store information about their own experiences and separate the important from the unimportant. In this way, early childhood experiences would be saved as unconscious memories. However, we would have no conscious, language-related access to it.

Language development is a factor in how quickly children develop an autobiographical memory: “The more parents exchange experiences with their offspring, the faster children develop an autobiographical memory.”

People only developed part of their identity when they actually reported their life events – using language. That was the case at the age of six. At around 16 we started linking and evaluating different experiences in life, at around 20 we started to reflect on our development. We were particularly influenced by experiences between the ages of 15 and 25. In this phase we would also experience events for the first time, and secondly, we now saved new things particularly well. Memory is the decisive factor in intellectual maturation.

From around 20 we start to reflect on our previous development. (Image: gerasimov174 /

The first-person narrator

The jump between episodic memory and ego experience, according to the author, is about feeling. Only when a remembered experience feels like its own does it become “our” memory.

We would automatically be wrong often because there were a lot of parallel processes in the brain that could distort memories. Really remembered and wrongly remembered objects would activate the brain almost identically.

Creating memories

According to Korte, we even remember stories that someone told us as a child and transform them into our own. Every time we remember something, the expert says, we create a new one using an old neural track. When we remember, we are really only activating the most recent trail, and the idea that “we would be going back in time seems wrong.”

Traces of memories would be overwritten by copies created by retelling and reliving these memories. Korte quotes the memory researcher Douwe Draaisma that the oldest becomes the newest in the short term, the first becomes the last.

The strength and weakness of our memory at the same time consist in the fact that our memories are always a reconstruction of what we have experienced based on a few key points. Therefore, it is effective, but at the same time forgetful and fallible.

This was also confirmed by a study by the psychologist Elisabeth Loftus, using young psychologists who firstly dealt with false memories full-time and secondly were at a particularly receptive age. Just two weeks after a conference, participants had forgotten 92% of the content of the conference. Half of the remaining 8% consisted of false memories, i.e. false reconstructions.

According to the author, memory cannot store precise, infallible and complete information at any point in our life. What’s more, don’t try to create an accurate picture of the past at all. According to Korte, this is not the task of remembering, but rather we store the feelings and meanings that we assign to a situation, and these memories would change when they were saved again, so that we were constantly working on the script of our own life.

Although our memory would rarely invent events freely, our memories are easy to influence suggestively. This had fatal consequences in court, where false statements were more credible for the witnesses themselves the more they repeated them.

Present or past?

Old memories shaped what we experienced in the present and remembered later. Our brains would store the cornerstones of an experience and put them together to create experiences based on probabilities – using the smallest fragments. This would be very efficient as a data storage, but also prone to errors.

The “experience” forms at the moment of remembering. This reconstruction has no direct line to the original experience and is susceptible to distortion. According to the book, the distortions could arise from the fact that different brain areas shape the memory of a concrete result.

These areas worked hand in hand, but at the same time independently of one another: certain areas kept fragments of images, smells or tastes, others could combine these sensory experiences and others linked them with factual and empirical knowledge.

The mood creates the experience

So it is wrong to think that we are awakening dormant memories. In reality, we create memories of what we have experienced since the first save. The current mood determines how we remember previous experiences, we even saved this adaptation and weaved it into the neural network of the respective memory. Foreknowledge also means prejudice. +

The reconstruction of past experiences is very susceptible to distortion. (Image: aytuncoylum /

So in our perception there is not “the world itself”. Korte writes: “We do not see the world as it is, we do not perceive it as it seems, we experience it as the connections in our brain dictate – and these connections are much more of our memory than ours Genes shaped. ”

People would therefore remember shared experiences differently because they then had different personal experiences.
According to Korte, we should be skeptical when memories seem too real and correct. Man constructs his memory world, but he constructs it into something given. So there is definitely a “reality” on the basis of which the brain constructs memories.

Habit, addiction, routine

According to the author, conscious and unconscious cannot be viewed in isolation. We performed most of the activities automatically, but at the same time they were impossible without memory. We are unaware of most of what this does: Without thinking, we would read 150 words per minute without problems.

Habits were also part of this implicit memory – we would often not even notice them. Much of our day-to-day life would consist of these habits. Behavior is only determined by intention if it is not automated. The more often we repeated processes, the more important the context of the action became and the more the goal was pushed into the background.

This is particularly true for addictions, in which the original motive of having fun does not matter anymore. Conscious memory is only a fraction of our memory processes. Addictions are habits that we are consciously unable to defend ourselves against, or not at all.

The motor memory is embedded in actions. If we practiced movements, according to Korte, the brain would initially set the goals. Later, however, the structures to perform an action even stored the information. This means that what has been learned can be called up automatically and does not have to go through the conscious filter.


We could assess a situation more quickly if we had experienced it before. We could also classify objects and words better if we were in contact with them. The neurobiologist mentions restaurants, operas or theaters, for example, whose usual processes we know. Indicative stimuli would help us associatively to assess a situation, to solve tasks faster and to access what we learned more easily.

We also learned more from what someone sets out to us and what we experienced ourselves than what someone explains to us. Children learned to behave better by example than by admonition. Learning through imitation is particularly pronounced in humans due to mirror neurons in the cerebral cortex. These nerve cells are also active when other people move. The more familiar someone is to another person, the better they would work. Neurons could quickly add patterns if they recognized the patterns. Perception also follows memory.

Our sensory perception is therefore highly variable and is in no way evolutionarily fixed. Experience would change all levels of information in the brain.

Perceptual memory

According to the author, perception is an interpretation of the world based on stored previous experiences. This would make our brain aware of puberty grow , and the synapses mirrored the individual experiences that a person had in his environment. An initially incomprehensible image becomes meaningful through experience in perception. Perception is therefore closely related to experience and this is bound to memory.

Perceptions are hypotheses about the world based on previous experience. The advantage is, if you follow Korte, that internal processes in the brain would then no longer need external stimuli. Thanks to our expectations, we could quickly associate processes that belong together.

The perception of one’s own body is also ordered through memory processes. This is shown, for example, by phantom pain. Here we remember pain in a part of the body that no longer exists in real terms and feel “real” pain that cannot be carnal at this point.

“Phantom pain” is pain that is felt after an amputation in the part of the body that no longer exists. (Image: Natalie Schorr /

In the cerebrum, the entire surface of the body is depicted as on a map; in the case of an amputation, the corresponding areas of touch are not shut down, but adjacent areas now take over.

Korte writes: “If you carefully touch the cheek of a patient like this, he often feels a touch of his amputated arm at the same time.” We didn’t need a body to feel one.

Intuition – the fast memory

“The more we know in an area, the more differentiated we perceive the world, and at the same time the effort that we have to spend on this differentiated worldview becomes less,” said the author.

This reveals something about the “secret” of intuition. Intuition means, according to the neurobiologist, to quickly come to an understanding without knowing the deeper reasons and often even act accordingly. We would unconsciously recognize familiar patterns that we would have stored in implicit memory, in other words: the greater our previous knowledge, the better our intuition works.

Intuition therefore goes hand in hand with experience, it is a condensation of previous experiences and crystallized memory processes. They are neither irrational nor spontaneous, but the product of analytical processes, the structure of which is extremely condensed.


This compressed retrieval of memory content enables us to shoot quickly, but it also harbors a danger – the prejudices . We do not develop these consciously, but the brain divides the stored world perceptions into types: clichés and stereotypes are not only in the mind of some people, but everyone.

But we could make our unconscious advantages aware and take action against them. He writes: “On the other hand, if you only see others’ prejudices, you miss out on something important in yourself.” Prejudices are dangerous not only for other people who become victims, but also for people who have and / or accept the prejudice.

Korte proves this in experiments the results of which are startling: Cognitive psychologist Claude Steele from Stanford University carried out a test in which students were told that women were less mathematically gifted than men. As a result, the participants performed worse in the tests than without this prejudice.

A study at Yale University showed that older participants who read stereotypical sentences about seniors like “Old people are forgetful” moved out of the room more slowly than a comparison group who had not read these suggestions.

Korte inspires self-reflection

This is where the value of Korte’s work can be seen: While countless “recognize yourself” guides promise to give readers access to self-reflection, but without honoring these promises, his non-fiction book, which was initially not touted as a help to life, forces such Aha experiences ”.

At the latest the suggestive effect of one’s own prejudices or prejudices of others described by him, inspires the reader to think and puts him in a relationship to the described problems: we do not all know the messages received as a child such as “you are not technically gifted”, ” you will never become anything ”,“ you cannot do this ”and its effect on our self-perception and our consequent thinking and acting?

What is the number of people who did not choose a course of study because of a bad grade in their teens, even though they were passionate about the subject? Or those who chose a profession that made them unhappy because they kept hearing that their real interests were “breadless art”?

Messages received in childhood often have far-reaching consequences for our later life. (Image: ra2 studio /

Some consciously look for the areas that have been suggested to be unsuitable for them and are slowly but surely struggling freely. Then they come back to the old memory patterns when the people who have the prejudices persuade them to do so again. Still others lose their prejudices about themselves through new relationships that put memories back together and reevaluate experiences.

For example, a man whose parents suggested that he was technically unskilled gets to know a partner who does not have the parents’ prejudices. He renovates the apartment together with her and she is shocked when the parents represent her in her presence. Here, a new reconstruction in communication with the partner can replace the old construction, for example by reminding the partner of episodes in which he demonstrated his technical skills.

But others never have the opportunity to reflect the prejudices about themselves or others through such new experiences. Reflecting means, first of all, to be aware that these are the same, just as a problem can only be solved if someone knows that there is a problem.

Limit prejudice

Everyone has prejudices, and admitting this is, according to Korte, the first step in being able to limit them.

These are unconscious, fast and over-generalized processes of implicit memory. A study found that a 10-minute conversation can influence them towards a more open world view. The topic was transsexuals.

It was remarkable that the people who restricted their prejudices did not speak to a person from this minority. On the other hand, contact with minorities alone could not remove them, factual information and information would help.

According to Korte, we cannot avoid prejudices, i.e. exaggerated generalizations of our memory. But, he writes, “the more we know about the world, the more differentiated we perceive it and the less unjustified prejudices we develop.”

In addition, we would have to reflect on our own thinking, acting and perceiving. Prejudices could be recognized, named and combated.


What do addictions have to do with memory? According to the expert, they are inseparable from this, since it is neurobiologically strong habits over which a person has lost control.

The loss of control is shown by the fact that there is no reward, which is the stimulus for less entrenched habits. The reward system prevents dependencies.

This shifts with a dependency. Here the impulse is so strong “that the craving for the addictive substance becomes routine.” At the cellular level, addictions take place with the same molecules and at the same synapses as physiological learning processes. In certain brain regions, learning works too well with addictions, and forgetting becomes almost impossible.

If stimuli indicated that the next drug use was imminent, dopamine would be released. At the same time, this suggests that the drug is supplied to the body immediately, and this leads to an insatiable desire for it. If the context of life changes, the chance of getting rid of the drug increases, because addiction, like other forms of memory, has to do with stimuli and objects that triggered the process in the synapses.

The learned addiction to overeating also has to do with memory. For example, the brain saves eating certain foods as a reward, even though the calorie requirement is covered. We are increasing. Excessive eating becomes an unconscious habit.

Outsmart bad habits

According to Korte, we can outwit habits that harm us. Habits are not necessarily negative; they relieved the working memory and let us recognize patterns, and carry out the correct actions even under stress . The problem is that our brains don’t distinguish between good and bad habits.

Many made the mistake of thinking that bad habits could be changed with good intentions. However, this would not be the case if behavior was automated. Habits developed over a period of about a month, and that was how long it took to take them off.

According to Korte, habits are best changed in a social group. (Image: puhhha /

Studies show that behavior exists even if those affected intend to change it. This applies particularly to addictive behavior, but not only. Personal goals alone do not break with old habits. This requires new routines and habits. It was easiest to change habits in a social group without external pressure.

The willpower to change habits could also be strengthened through mindfulness. This strengthens the control of the frontal lobe as an executive of the brain. For this, it is necessary to observe what is there, presently, precisely and impartially, without immediately evaluating it without reflection.

Korte’s conclusion is positive: “If you believe in change, if you make it a habit, it will also become real. That is the real power of habit, the insight that our habits are only what we make them. ”

If you want to change habits, you have to break the triad of trigger stimulus, routine and reward.

The store grows with its abundance

The expert also explains that neurons can still form in adult brains. In memory, these new neurons may be the explanation that people who have been open to new things for life can learn and remember even better in old age.

The adult neurogenesis is responsible for the formation of new synapses and the ramifications of nerve cells and also for the fact that new neurons are built into the existing switching systems. The new nerve cells would even create new storage space in the brain. And they would be formed again by learning.

This means that anyone who learns a lot and new not only creates more knowledge, but also a larger memory in the brain to absorb new memory content.

A dream comes true: learning while sleeping

The dream too belongs to the areas of our memory. Dreams reflected current emotional states, whereby the corresponding stories often only emerge when you wake up.

Lack of sleep leads, among other things, to memory loss. The author believes that sleep serves to restore the inner balance of our memory. In sleep, it is possible to repeat what has been learned during the day and associatively combine learning content within a context.

Perception learning is processed in SEM phases, autobiographical experiences and factual knowledge in the deep sleep phases.

Motor memory also works in sleep. It optimizes nerve cells at night for a specific task and would always go through the brain areas that were active during the day.

According to Korte, studies show that musicians mastered pieces that they learned during the day after sleeping well the next day. This was especially true for passages in which they had previously made mistakes. Obviously, the brain not only repeated what it had learned, but also made up for the mistakes.

In addition, the brain structures information processing between nerve cells during sleep. We learn in sleep through repetition what we learned during the day. If we sleep too little or badly, we learn insufficiently – if we don’t get any sleep, it can lead to amnesia. When we work on problems during the day, our sleep memory prepares us for the solution.

Lucid dreams

He goes further into the mythical topic of “lucid dreams”. To activate our sleep phase for active learning, the following applies: Those who go to bed regularly and get up at the same time can learn all the better in their sleep because they fall asleep and sleep better.

According to the book, the inner balance of our memory is established during sleep. (Image: leszekglasner /

The difference between lucid dreaming and dream normally lies in the fact that active stay with the lucid dreaming the frontal lobe. The expert sees a potential to use lucid dreams for learning or to overcome fears.

In the first phase of sleep, the brain sorts the memories of the day into important and unimportant ones, in order to dedicate the second phase to events from before.

According to Korte, memory work takes place in sleep, but without the inner narrator of our conscious thinking, “Dreams would thus be the small islands of memory of the processes that took place in our minds during the night – greatly alienated and greatly shortened.” When we wake up, we would reconnect these fragments into a narrative.

Tricks and training

In the end, he gives the reader practical tips to train the memory. The following applies: nothing comes from nothing. Korte writes: “So we only remember what we coded. And what we code depends on what experience we have, what knowledge we have and what needs. ”

Between learning blocks, distraction and relaxation are necessary. The brain needs the change of perspective to solve a problem. It considers interruptions as unfinished business. But these remained in the memory longer than completed tasks.

Interruptions would activate it because interrupted projects would be at the top of the mental priority list.

The most relaxed form of sustainable learning is sleeping.

The author contradicts the classic learning guides, according to which one should always learn at the same time in the same place. However, learning in different places, times and with different moods increases associative memory. The more often we learned in different places, the better we could remember in different places.

However, we could also restructure learning material and thereby strengthen the paths of association. Changing learning habits enriched the skill we wanted to learn. The more variety, the more mix of learning methods, the better we would learn something and recall it. Mechanical repetition, on the other hand, only serves short-term memory.

Sustainable learning means shorter learning phases and longer intervals between repetitions. If you break up learning content into small portions and learn at shorter intervals, you can double the amount you remember. This method is particularly effective for learning something completely new. Determining the intervals and breaks in order to learn effectively means above all: planning.

The learning type would have no influence on the learning success. Rather, effective learning means addressing different sensory systems. The learner should be actively involved. Formulating what you have learned for others increases success.

Memories become better the more you have to make an effort to learn. This would contradict learning according to its special type of learning: if we only use information via the preferred sensory channel, little would be stuck in the memory.

Exam situations at the beginning increased memory performance by 30%. So tests are as much a learning method as learning assessment: “When we call up memory content in a test situation, we save this content in the memory again – but with other related facts.”

Nutrition also plays a role, overweight is particularly damaging to the memory, and especially the fat deposits in the abdominal area. Endurance training increases the number of new nerve cells in the hippocampus. For this, small amounts of alcohol and coffee are better than none at all, since caffeine and alcohol in low doses would maintain cognitive resources in the brain through increased blood flow.

We should motivate ourselves for what we want to learn, learn in a focused and focused manner, tell others what we know in order to better understand and keep it. According to Korte, we can help our memory by moving, breaking with habits out of habit, having a goal in mind when exercising, regularly checking our possible competencies.


Martin Korte is a professor of neurobiology and draws on extensive knowledge of the human brain and memory. At the same time, he can convey these complex relationships in a vivid way – even for laypersons.

There are countless instructions on the market that offer “brain training”, some with some useful tips for memory exercises, healthy eating or moderate exercise – others inflated with esoteric nonsense, “cosmic inspiration” and irrational promises of salvation.

Korte plays in a completely different league, and his conclusions for practical life to improve memory performance are pleasantly different from the “brainwashing” of this anti-enlightenment psychological market.

It shows neurobiologically exactly what happens in the brain as we learn, develop prejudices, suffer from addictions – when we sleep and dream, we remember. This shows where we can start if we want to improve our memory and become mentally fit. It enables the reader to understand what is happening in his head. And only this understanding enables improvement.

In doing so, he contrasts new knowledge with common myths: memory is not a chronicle and we should not believe people who claim to be able to objectively remember; the brain is not unchangeable, but changes for a lifetime; memory does not have to decrease in old age; it can even increase in people who are eager to learn; we do not become primarily what is in our genes, but what we learn and remember. Dreams are neither foams nor higher wisdom, but fragments of our nightly brain work.


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