Discover the Importance of Your Hippocampus

Discover the Importance of Your Hippocampus

Learn how the hippocampus works and how to keep it healthy.

The word hippocampus means “seahorse” in Greek, which is what it’s shaped like. Like most things in the brain, the hippocampus is complex. It’s a structure consisting of several subparts and multiple layers, and it connects to several other areas of the brain (Dhikav & Anand, 2012). These connections are what allow your short-term memories to be stored in other parts of the brain to create long-term memories that you can retrieve later.

Hippocampus Function

The hippocampus plays important roles in learning, spatial navigation, and emotions. But it’s best known for the formation, organization, and storage of long-term memories, especially episodic memories, which are the events and experiences of your life.

Another significant function of the hippocampus is spatial recognition. This gives you the ability to navigate your environment. It allows you to determine where your body is in relation to objects around you and to move around effectively. The hippocampus does this by translating what you see into a kind of mental map (Lisman et al., 2017). This process demonstrates its connection to visual areas of the brain (Voss et al., 2017).

Along with other parts of the brain, the hippocampus plays a significant role in emotional processing (Zhu et al., 2019). This includes impulse control (Noble et al., 2019), which we’ll get into further when we talk about the hippocampus’s connection to other brain areas.

Why Is the Hippocampus Important?

Considering the functions described above, it seems pretty clear why the hippocampus is important. Memory is involved in almost every aspect of our lives. This includes not only remembering factual information like your phone number and information about the world, but also the people in your life and your experiences.

Perhaps the most important role of the hippocampus is the generation of episodic memories (Lisman et al., 2017). Episodic memory is a type of long-term memory that allows you to recall personal past events and experiences. It works by tying together the spatial, emotional, and mental elements of experiences to form these rich memories. Studies suggest that if a memory involves vivid imagery with lots of sensory input (sights, sounds, smells), it’s dependent on the hippocampus (Bird & Burgess, 2008). These types of memories are a huge part of what makes you who you are.

In addition, the hippocampus’s contribution to emotion regulation is important for emotional well-being (Zhu et al., 2019). Trouble regulating emotions contributes to anxiety and depression. The hippocampus also plays a role in impulse control. And lack of impulse control typically leads to nothing good—overeating, excessive gambling, and drug and alcohol misuse (Noble et al., 2019).

“Exercise is the best way to prevent Alzheimer. Rotate your arms; rotate your legs; twist your spine and activate your hippocampus to prevent Alzheimer.”
― Amit Ray

Long-Term Memory

There are two types of long-term memory: declarative (or explicit), and nondeclarative (or implicit). Declarative memory is the “what” of memory. It includes facts, dates, your phone number, what you ate yesterday, and experiences (episodic memories). Implicit memory is the “how” of memory. This is when you just know how to do something without having to think about it. This includes things like riding a bike, reading, walking, and getting dressed.

The hippocampus is essential for creating declarative memories—the “what” part. It turns short-term memories into long-term memories. It “shifts” memories to other parts of the brain for long-term storage. Then when you want to retrieve a memory, it’s the hippocampus that activates those long-term storage areas.

Research also suggests that the hippocampus reduces memory “interference” (Britannica, 2023). For example, it’s what allows you to remember where you parked your car today rather than yesterday.

The Hippocampus and the Amygdala

The word amygdala is Greek for “almond,” and like the hippocampus, it’s named for its shape. It sits right next to the hippocampus. It’s responsible for emotions, especially strong emotions like fear, anxiety, and pleasure. The amygdala is what triggers the “fight or flight” response.

Our episodic memories are often associated with emotions. When our brain creates new memories, the amygdala works with the hippocampus to connect the emotional aspects of an experience to the specifics of what happened. So these two brain structures work together to recall not only the facts of an event but also the emotional flavor. This is why emotional memories are so strong and easy to recall. Everyone can relate to recalling an experience and feeling the same surge of emotions that we felt at the time it happened. It can feel as if you’re experiencing it all over again.

In Sum

The importance of the hippocampus can’t be overstated. When it’s damaged or not functioning properly, it can make everyday activities impossible or even change the core of who we are. There’s a lot of exciting research being done that could lead to new treatments for debilitating health problems such as Alzheimer’s and depression. There’s not much we can do about our genetics or accidental brain injury. However, there are things we can do to help keep our brain healthy. These include eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, relieving stress, maintaining social connections, and learning new things.

References:

● Bird, C. M., & Burgess, N. (2008). The hippocampus and memory: insights from spatial processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(3), 182–194. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2335

● Dhikav, V., & Anand, K. S. (2012). Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 15(4), 239. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-2327.104323

● Lisman, J., Buzsáki, G., Eichenbaum, H., Nadel, L., Ranganath, C., & Redish, A. D. (2017). Viewpoints: how the hippocampus contributes to memory, navigation and cognition. Nature neuroscience, 20(11), 1434–1447. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4661

● Noble, E. E., Wang, Z., Liu, C. M., Davis, E. A., Suarez, A. N., Stein, L. M., Tsan, L., Terrill, S. J., Hsu, T. M., Jung, A.-H., Raycraft, L. M., Hahn, J. D., Darvas, M., Cortella, A. M., Schier, L. A., Johnson, A. W., Hayes, M. R., Holschneider, D. P., & Kanoski, S. E. (2019). Hypothalamus-hippocampus circuitry regulates impulsivity via melanin-concentrating hormone. Nature communications, 10(1), 4923. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-12895-y

● Voss, J. L., Bridge, D. J., Cohen, N. J., & Walker, J. A. (2017). A closer look at the hippocampus and memory. Trends in cognitive sciences, 21(8), 577–588. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2017.05.008

● Zhu, Y., Gao, H., Tong, L., Li, Z. , Wang, L., Zhang, C., Yang, Q., & Yan, B. (2019). Emotion regulation of hippocampus using real-time fMRI neurofeedback in healthy human. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 13, 242. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00242