Memory and behaviour: Duelling memories

Charles Young

Brands constantly compete for attention, but strong advertising not only assists brand memory, it suppresses the memory of competing brands.

A brand is a memory. At first glance, that statement feels like an oversimplification, or perhaps too retro. But if it feels that way, it's because what we think we know about memory is too simplistic. Understanding the nature of memory is, and has been for quite some time, one of the central mysteries of the brain. It is a vast and complicated problem for neuroscientists to unravel. Decoding DNA was trivial by comparison.

The advertising community would rather talk about ideas. But ideas are to memories as plans are to battles. Ideas are simple. Memories are messy. A memory is an idea that's survived contact with reality.

The substrate of memory is experience. According to Endel Tulving, the grandfather of modern memory research, 'a memory is a change in a nervous system that allows it to learn from experience'. Importantly, memory is a physical change in the brain. So, memory is the physical link between past and future behaviour; future behaviour is the outcome of predictions made by the brain based on lessons learned from past experience. A change in behaviour in response to new or modified surroundings is directly linked to a change in memory derived from new experience, of either a physical or mental event. Memory, therefore, is the neurological key to our ability to adapt to a changing, dynamic environment. And our ability to adapt is the primary function of our big brains.