If you’re over 50, you may say you’re having a “senior moment.” If under 50, you simply say “I can’t remember” or “I forgot.” The truth is that the majority of memory problems have very little to do with age and aging. Knowing this, you may be wondering, what is causing me to forget where my keys are located, the name of my favorite movie, or that person’s phone number? Sometimes you might also find that you know what that particular thing does and where it’s located, yet you can’t find the name for it in your head. You might say it’s on the “tip of my tongue… what is it called?” This is a problem with word-finding.
Because of the complexity of memory problems, I’m dividing this topic into three separate posts. First, we’re exploring how you remember things, the next post will be devoted to what causes memory problems and the last post will provide ways of helping you improve your memory, including specific methods and treatments.
Memory is a complex process of networks and various components. The process of forming and retrieving memories is comprised of three distinct phases: registration, storage and retrieval. For you to remember anything, it is crucial that these three areas work together as a seamless team.
Registration, also called encoding, involves the perception of environmental information and sensory input, such as your skin, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, hair. Our first memory is the smell of our mother and the touch of her skin. Newborns heart rates and body respond directly to that of their mother versus a nurse or some other caregiver. This ability for the sense of touch and memory is part of your automatic memory. This is what enables you to open your lock at your locker without thinking or know the touch of the correct location to throw a ball in baseball or basketball. The delta waves in our brain are our radar signal, and register if there is danger or not. Subparts of registrationare attention and concentration.
Attention is the ability to focus on specific messages, while concentration is the capacity to maintain attention to that message. These abilities enable you to select which input from bodily sensations and your surrounding environment you wish to respond to, as well as allow you to shift from one activity or thought to another. In an infant, the sight of the breast or bottle, and the sound of the mother’s voice get the infant to focus on soothing rather than the discomfort of the feeling of hunger. If you want to see attention and concentration, just go to a sports bar and watch the viewers watching a football game during a vital play-in-action. Their eyes are focused on the play and are concentrating on every move the players are making.
The second phase of memory is storage. How you store information is the key to a keen memory. Studies show that relating new material to previously learned information helps to form new pathways between the cells of the brain for more efficient storage of information. There are three types of memory storage: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Sensory memoryis the storage of information that lasts only seconds but leaves a lingering sight, smell, sound, or sensation, such as when a fly brushes against your skin. This type of memory works hand-in-hand with attention. If you cannot recall the name of someone you were just introduced to, or you cannot recall the phone number just recited by the operator, it is usually inattention that has prevented the information from being stored. However, if you have deficits affecting sensory memory, you may be unable to play back in your mind what you have just heard. In the case of visual images, you may be unable to picture a bit of information. Deficits in sensory memory often go unnoticed. After all, if you don’t notice something in the first place, you cannot be aware of not remembering it.
This is vital when learning a sport, recreational activity, dancing, or playing a musical instrument, where sensory memory is crucial. As a guitarist and piano player, I know by touch where a note is on the guitar or on the piano. This is why many people who are blind are able to play musical instruments. This action counts on sensory memory, rather than being able to see the location on the keyboard. As a figure skater, downhill skier or baseball player, you feel the movement. This is also sensory memory.
Short-term memory, also called buffer memory or working memory, is the part of the memory process that receives and recalls chunks of information for up to one minute. Short-term memory is what enables you to integrate previously learned information with new information to form creative or novel thoughts. It is critical to daily living; and what makes it possible for you to recall where you placed your car keys or checkbook, whether you locked the door or turned off the stove, and whether you have eaten or bathed. In the best of circumstances, short-term memory has a limited storage capacity. This type of memory is the most susceptible to interference from the pain, stress, fatigue, attention problems, and sensory overload that can follow a brain injury. If you are interrupted while receiving a bit of information, the thought may be lost. Thus, it is hard to remember what your coach, boss or spouse just told you.
Long-term memory, also called remote or secondary memory, differs from short-term memory in duration, capacity, and manner of storage. Long-term memories are information received and held beyond thirty seconds, becoming learned information. Research suggests that the capacity of long-term memory is immeasurable, in contrast to short-term memory’s limited capacity, and that the reliving or re-experiencing of memories solidifies their place in long-term storage. There are two methods of forming long-term memory: Declarative and Procedural. Declarative memory is memory of events and facts, such as the color of someone’s hair, a birth date, or information about yourself. Procedural memoryis the learning of skills, procedures, and motor movement and is often called motor memory.
In addition, there are two ways in which those memories are processed: Explicit and Implicit. Explicit memory occurs when you are aware that you are learning material or information, such as you sitting in a classroom or your boss, spouse or coach is giving you specific information. There is intent to acquire the information. For instance, an Explicit Declarative memory would take place when you are at a party and are aware that you’re trying to learn someone’s name. Implicit memory happens when you learn a detail or motor movement and are unaware that you have gained the information. For example, when you become able to balance on a bike while riding, your brain has learned through a variety of networks and hubs the details of what is needed to balance the bike.
Episodic memory, also called flashbulb memory, involves sights, sounds and details that are connected to an emotional event, such as an accident or recalling exactly what you were doing on September 11, 2001 when you learned of the attacks on the Twin Towers. This type of memory is most common in PTSD and is part of what is known as “flashbacks.” Memories already stored prior to an injury are called retrograde memories, while memories learned and stored after injury are called anterograde memories.
The last phase of memory is retrieval, your ability to access stored information. It is extremely important to note that retrieval can occur only if both registration and storage have taken place. It is based on cues that trigger your memory of how the information was first registered. Smells, sights, sounds, and emotions, for example, are often linked to memories; this is why hearing an old song can momentarily take you back to the past.
Research shows that information is more easily accessed if you can reproduce the state in which it was registered, either physically or through hypnosis. Any form of stress, fatigue, anxiety, or depression can interfere with this ability. Memory-retrieval problems can range from “tip-of-the-tongue” struggles, to an inability to describe a missing word or thought, to amnesia, or complete inability to access information. Other thoughts may intrude, information may be recalled incorrectly, or messages may be lost among other information.
Forgetting occurs when a particular memory is not accessible. This can mean that the information is no longer stored, or that there is some sort of internal or external interference with the memory. Often, forgetting results from poor organization of information to be stored. For instance, if someone tells you his or her phone number, you need to repeat the number or link it with other information, such as the year you were born or some other familiar number, in order to remember it. Without this step of practice, the information is more likely to be lost.
Now if you haven’t forgotten what I wrote above, my next blog post will delve into what causes you to forget and why. Until next week!