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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

Type rated on A330, B747-400, B747, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Building Blocks of the Memory

From flying planes to studying the brain and memory, I assure you there is a direct correlation. As another day passes without seeing the plane that I worked so hard to learn, my thoughts are: “I hope I can remember everything,” and yet… I know that I will, and so can you!

The key is keeping your brain alive, storing the knowledge properly for retention with the ability to access and processes the data when needed.

The Memory is not “one” thing, but many living, breathing, eating, coordinating, and functioning components that utilize multiple areas of your brain. Experts have given the memory many names such as explicit, associative, working, long-term, short-term, intentional, incidental, semantic, episodic and procedural. We could probably ascertain that we have ten different memories.

A key principle... If you don’t use it, you lose it!

Did you know?

  • Short-term memory is usually not retained for more than 30 seconds, and capacity is limited to approximately 7 digits! Good thing frequencies, flight levels and transponder codes all fit within those limits. While it may stay longer, if data doesn’t move to long-term memory it will be gone the next morning.

  • Long-term memory is actually comprised of three different types of memory and each retains different information! Semantic memory: Individual facts. Episodic memory: Experiences and events. Procedural memory: behaviors, habits and rote activities.

  • The “reasoning” process can only operate on information stored in “short-term” memory! The decision process occurs in the frontal lobe and activates information from long-term memory, and then swaps this information in and out of short-term as needed.

  • You have look-up subsystems for your memory! The more information you pay attention to, memory will be improved because there will be more data available in the search. If you have a choice between incidental and intentional memory…make it intentional. The longer information is attended to, the more likely the memory subsystems will store it into the memory.

A Delta Pilot/Attorney/ Iron Man/ and all around great guy said, “Whatever we learn to do, we learn by doing it. By exercise, we become fit; by thinking, we become wise. Pay attention to what you do.” Glenn Cook, Pilot/Attorney

  • Implicit memory we use daily, and explicit memory, while we hope to never use, is as equally important! Implicit memory is the memory that after awhile we don’t need to think about it, such as flying the plane. But when you lose your engine at altitude and need to access procedures to secure the engine and manage the FCU and MCDU on your A330, you definitely hope there is something stored in the explicit memory.

  • With lack of standardization, associative memory is more important than ever! Without solid procedures in place, you need to attach an action of one step to the next, using your Associative Memory. A ‘wave off’ from the ground crew and the first officer moves the flaps, is a perfect example. This works great, as long as the first step that we link to doesn’t get missed.

  • Memory formation is created by subsystems that rely on anatomical structures located deep in the brain, and that incoming perceptual information is processed by the hippocampus and passes through the cortex under the front of the temporal lobe, which projects to the entorhinal cortex and then to the hippocampus! Did you care?
We actually have multiple memories… each working with a different portion of the brain. The hypothalamus is grouped with the thalamus, and is involved with motivation, and the amygdale with emotion…Yes... both motivation and emotion impact the memory. (Why do you think women can remember a fight with such clarity?) The cerebrum is involved with intellect, memory, language, and decision making. Damage to any of these systems will destroy your ability to learn new information. But the brain can grow and continue to learn.

My eldest sister was involved in a car accident in 1982 and her brain was crushed. The doctors wired it together and said that if she ever came out of her coma, she would be blind, and non-functional. She did come out of her coma and for the next 20 years a small portion of her brain grew and learned new tasks.

For those of you who remember the attack on FedEx Flight 705 … an amazing story of incredible piloting, and survival. I had the opportunity to meet James Tucker, and while he never made it back to the plane, he did re-teach his brain how to perform fundamental tasks.

The brain is an amazing thing… and the next two weeks will be dedicated how to get the most out of it. There is a reason that I hadn’t flown for 18 months, had been a second officer for 12 years and am still able to navigate the most challenging of training programs and attain my type rating. It’s not the size of your memory... it’s all about how you use!

Enjoy the Journey!

~ Karlene


  1. This is fascinating stuff, Karlene. I will be looking forward to every one of your brain/memory posts over the next couple of weeks. And yes, I DID care about what parts of the brain process incoming perceptual info -- this is useful and potentially enlightening -- as a mystery writer I love to follow the trail!

  2. Very intresting! i learned a new thing again lol...thats very sad about your sister, but thankfully she is ok now...Thats really cool that u got to meet the First Officer of that plane...what was it like talking to him? Its amazing what happened to all of that crew on that flight..hopefully that will never happen again

  3. Thanks Linda! And... it only gets better. I am so glad I have a brain fan who cares about incoming perceptual info. :) Thanks for your comment!

  4. Hi Pilot, Thanks for your comment. That first officer was actually a captain, who had been called out on reserve to fly in the right seat. He is an amazing man and has an incredible will, and strength. This incident impacted his three children too ... but in a good way, sent them down a different path in life. And my sister, while she improved...never fully became normal, and died one night many years ago. She's in a better place.
    Go read the story about FedEx.... very instrusting and scary!

  5. Oh really...I didnt know that...I watched a "Mayday" episode on that...imagine seeing what happened...very gory...thats good about his family...
    I am very sorry to hear about your sister...she would only be proud by her fantastic sister though :)...

  6. Thanks Pilot! And if you ever have a chance to hear him speak, it's incredible! He's actually a minister now.

  7. Good job, Kar!! I'll look forward to reading a new chapter every morning to keep my brain growing & functioning! :)

  8. Wow, that is some fascinating stuff! I found the procedural memory particularly interesting. Does that account for the times our fingers know which keys to press, but we can't remember them unless we perform the action and watch our fingers?


  9. This is a fantastic explanation of memory and how it works. It is so complicated! It is difficult to put into terms that all of us can understand. Thank you for taking the time to teach everyone!
    Livia McCoy

  10. Kathy thank you so much! A major delay...but I am here...and with the new post!

  11. Liva, Thank you so much for your comments! Now...the fun stuff with how to put this all to use!

  12. Thanks for your comments Portia. That's exactly right... muscle memory... oh no another memory!
    Wait until you read tomorrow! Oh wait...that's today. :) I'm just late.

  13. LOL! It's not the size of your brain but how you use it, love that! Such a great point though, if we don't exercise our brain it fades just like any other muscle.


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