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Are Memory Problems Affecting Your Life?

Women looking confused, scratching her head and obviously having memory problems

Overview: How the Brain Processes Memories

Memory problems are a complex set of processes that include several networks for storing and retrieving information. The memory process occurs in three phases: registration (encoding), storage and retrieval. How we store information, which includes sensory, short-term, and long-term memory, is crucial to a good memory.

Memory is processed in two ways – either explicitly, when you are aware that you are learning information, or implicitly, when you learn a detail and are unaware that you learned it. Damage to any part of this system can cause problems with one’s ability to link and recall thoughts and experiences, causing memory problems.

What are the 3 Phases of Memory Processing?

Phase 1 – Registration

Registration, also called encoding, involves your brain’s awareness of your environment and of sensory input. Our first memory is the smell and touch of our mother. A newborn’s heart rate and body respond directly to their mother’s. The brain’s ability to register the sense of touch and smell is part of our automatic memory. This is what enables you to open your lock at your locker without thinking or know the correct location to throw a ball in baseball. Subparts of registration are attention and concentration.

What roles do Attention and Concentration play in Memory?

Attention is the ability to focus on a specific information and concentration is the capacity to keep attention to that information. Attention and concentration enable you to select what input from your surrounding environment you wish to respond to. They also allow you to shift from one activity or thought to another.

In an infant, the sight of a breast or bottle, and the sound of the mother’s voice will shift the infant’s focus away from the discomfort of being hungry. If you want to see attention and concentration, just go to a sports bar, and watch the people watching a football game during an important play. Their eyes are focused and are they concentrating on every move the players make.

Phase 2 – Storage

How your brain stores information is the key to a keen memory. Studies show that relating new material to learned material helps to form new pathways in the brain for more efficient storage of information. There are three types of memory storage: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Phase 3 – Retrieval

The last phase of memory is retrieval; your brain’s ability to access stored information. It is important to note that retrieval can happen only if both registration and storage have taken place. Cues trigger your memory on how the information was first registered. For example, smells, sights, sounds, and emotions are often linked to memories, therefore, hearing an old song can feel like you’re being taken back to the past.

What are the Different Types of Memory?

What is Sensory Memory?

Sensory memory is 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 together with attention. If you cannot recall the name of someone you just met, or if you can’t remember the phone number that was just given to you, chances are that inattention has prevented the information from being stored.

However, if you have deficits with your 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, how can you remember something you didn’t notice to begin with?

Sensory memory is vital when learning a sport, recreational activity, or playing a musical instrument. As a guitarist and piano player, Dr. Diane knows by touch where a note is on both instruments. This is how many people who are blind can play musical instruments, the action relies on your sensory memory, rather than sight. Figure skaters, downhill skiers, and basketball players also use sensory memory to learn their skills; they feel the movements and their brain stores the information.

What is Short-term Memory?

Short-term memory – also called working memory – is the part of the memory process that receives and recalls chunks of information for up to one minute. Short-term memory makes it possible to integrate learned information with new information to form creative or novel thoughts.

It is critical to daily living and is what makes it possible for you to recall the recent things that you’ve done; where you placed your car keys and whether you turned off the stove. Even in the best of circumstances your short-term memory has a limited storage capacity.

This type of memory is the most likely to be affected by 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. Are you trying to remember what your boss, coach or spouse just said to you? If you’re having problems with your short-term memory you may not remember.

What is Long-term Memory?

Long-term 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 our long-term memory is immeasurable, in contrast to the short-term memory’s limited capacity, and that reliving or re-experiencing 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 facts, such as a birth date. Procedural memory is the learning of skills and motor movement and is often called motor memory.

To take it further, there are two ways in which these memories are processed: Explicit and Implicit. Explicit memory occurs when you are aware that you are learning new information, such as when you are sitting in a class or when your boss is giving you specific information. There is intent to acquire the information. 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 but are unaware that you learned it. For example, when you learn to balance while riding your bike, your brain has learned through your brain’s network hubs the details of what is needed to balance on the bike.

What is Episodic Memory?

Episodic memory, also called flashbulb memory, involves sights, sounds, and details that are connected to an emotional event, such as a car accident or recalling what you were doing on September 11, 2001 the moment you learned about 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 stored prior to an injury are called retrograde memories, and memories stored after injury are called anterograde memories.

What are Some Causes of Memory Problems?

Memory problems unrelated to normal aging can be attributed to three main causes: disease, trauma, and neglect. We have little to no control over disease and trauma, but we do have control over neglect. To quote William Earnest Healey, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

It is also important to understand what effects the various causes, related to memory problems, can have. Attention problems may cause poor information storage. Say you’re listening to a lecture, if your brain didn’t store it correctly even after you paid attention and concentrated, this shows a problem with informational retrieval.

How Can Disease Cause Memory Problems?

Disease related problems are not due to any form of specific trauma, rather due to some form of infection, a dysfunction of neurotransmitter or neuromodulators.

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
    In Alzheimer’s Disease, there is a decrease in the brain’s ability to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, this results in the dying of neurons and the shrinking of the brain. There is also a buildup of plaque on the nerves themselves, this buildup causes the network hubs to be disconnected and electrical dysregulation to occur.
  • Parkinson’s Disease (PD)
    In Parkinson’s Disease, there is a decrease in the neuromodulators, especially dopamine, which also causes the neural hubs to lose connection and electrical dysregulation in the brain.
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
    Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an inflammation of the myelin sheath around the nerves, thus causing short circuiting in the hubs and dysregulation.

How Can Trauma Cause Memory Problems?

Trauma-related causes are due to events outside our control. All these categories cause dysregulation to the brain, either through disruption of neural connections, changes in brain wave regulation, or a decrease of oxygen or vital chemicals in the brain that disrupt the connectivity of the neural hubs needed for registration, storage, or retrieval.

How Does the Trauma of a Brain Injury Affect Your Memory?
Memory problems are most common and consistent after a brain injury but vary from person to person. These memory problems can range from the inability to recall events and digest new information to general forgetfulness, and they happen because the injury has prevented their brain from encoding the information properly. Memory is also influenced by factors such as attention, organization, motivation, and fatigue, which may also be affected by brain injury.

How Can Neglect Cause Memory Problems?

Memory problems are most common and consistent after a brain injury but vary from person to person. These memory problems can range from the inability to recall events and digest new information to general forgetfulness, and they happen because the injury has prevented their brain from encoding the information properly. Memory is also influenced by factors such as attention, organization, motivation, and fatigue, which may also be affected by brain injury.

Memory problems caused by disease and trauma are very different from neglect-related causes. With disease and trauma, the reason for memory problems is due to events outside of a person’s control. The neglect-related causes are due to events where a person does have a choice and makes a conscious decision not to take control of the situation. The consequences of these decisions result in almost identical symptoms as seen with disease and trauma-related causes.

Neglect Related Causes:
  • Alcohol Abuse
  • Smoking
  • Drug Abuse
  • Stress
  • Herpes Encephalitis
  • Improper Nutrition

Determining the causes of memory problems becomes difficult when neglect and trauma occur at the same time. For example, if someone is drinking while driving and then gets into an auto accident. How do you decide if the problems are due to alcohol abuse or from the concussion sustained in the accident? What is certain, however, is that to regain and improve your memory, the first step is to change the neglect-related cause of alcohol abuse.

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Dr. Diane® Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.
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Image Credit Elaine Boucher

Within each person shines an inner light that illuminates our path and is the source of hope. Illness, trauma, suffering and grief can diminish the light and shroud hope. I am a catalyst for hope and change, offering a way to rekindle this inner light.

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