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The Human Memory - what is memory, how does memory work, how can memory can go wrong

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Study into long-term memory of a complex learning task in Shetland ponies (Equus caballus)
It seems that our memory is located not in one particular place in the , but is instead a brain-wide process in which several different areas of the act in conjunction with one another (sometimes referred to as distributed processing). For example, the simple act of riding a bike is actively and seamlessly reconstructed by the brain from many different areas: the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one area, the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another, the memory of biking safety rules from another, and that nervous feeling when a car veers dangerously close comes from still another. Each element of a memory (sights, sounds, words, emotions) is in the same part of the that originally created that fragment (visual cortex, motor cortex, language area, etc), and of a memory effectively reactivates the neural patterns generated during the original . Thus, a better image might be that of a complex web, in which the threads symbolize the various elements of a memory, that join at nodes or intersection points to form a whole rounded memory of a person, object or event. This kind of distributed memory ensures that even if part of the is damaged, some parts of an experience may still remain. Neurologists are only beginning to understand how the parts are reassembled into a coherent whole.

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Our current system does not meet the needs of individuals who have experienced harm either. Individuals and communities fail to feel safer with the growth of prisons and the prison industrial complex. The legal system is exclusive, intimidating, ineffective at meeting people’s needs and supporting their confidence that harm will be reduced. Instead of asking, ‘Who did it and how can we punish them?’ which is the function of our courts, we ask ‘Who was hurt? How can we support their healing? How can we prevent such harm in the future?’


Memory is a complex and varied phenomenon

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The distinction between the primary and the secondary emotions is paralleled by two brain pathways: a fast pathway and a slow pathway (Damasio, 2000; LeDoux, 2000; Ochsner, Bunge, Gross, & Gabrielli, 2002). The thalamus acts as the major gatekeeper in this process (). Our response to the basic emotion of fear, for instance, is primarily determined by the fast pathway through the limbic system. When a car pulls out in front of us on the highway, the thalamus activates and sends an immediate message to the amygdala. We quickly move our foot to the brake pedal. Secondary emotions are more determined by the slow pathway through the frontal lobes in the cortex. When we stew in jealousy over the loss of a partner to a rival or recollect on our win in the big tennis match, the process is more complex. Information moves from the thalamus to the frontal lobes for cognitive analysis and integration, and then from there to the amygdala. We experience the arousal of emotion, but it is accompanied by a more complex cognitive appraisal, producing more refined emotions and behavioral responses.

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Neither is memory a single unitary process but there are different . Our and memories are and in different ways and in different parts of the brain, for reasons that we are only beginning to guess at. Years of case studies of patients suffering from accidents and brain-related diseases and other have begun to indicate some of the complexities of the , and great strides have been made in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, but many of the exact mechanisms involved remain elusive.

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This pulse travels rapidly along the cell's axon, and is transferred across a specialized connection known as a synapse to a neighbouring neuron, which receives it through its feathery dendrites. A synapse is a complex membrane junction or gap (the actual gap, also known as the synaptic cleft, is of the order of 20 nanometres, or 20 millionths of a millimetre) used to transmit signals between cells, and this transfer is therefore known as a synaptic connection. Although axon-dendrite synaptic connections are the norm, other variations (e.g. dendrite-dendrite, axon-axon, dendrite-axon) are also possible. A typical neuron fires 5 - 50 times every second.

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Privatisation means that multinational companies profit from the prison system in nearly all ways, from electronic tagging to running prison themselves. Profit is priority above harm reduction and when a company is paid for how full their prison is, the investment in rehabilitation is clearly running opposite to business goals. Thousands of prisoners are also employed producing goods for private sector companies through mainly menial labour such as packing headphones and boxes. Read more about that here. (