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Are Memory Problems Affecting Your Life?

Because of the complexity of your memory system, memory problems can have many different causes.

Memory is a complex set of processes that includes a number of interrelated networks for storing and retrieving information. These memory systems are dispersed across several areas of the brain depending on the content of the memory. 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 material or information, or implicitly, when you learn a detail or motor movement and are unaware that you have gained the information. Damage to any part of this complex system can cause problems with one’s ability to categorize, link and recall thoughts and experiences, causing memory problems.

Memory Problems

Memory problems are the most common and persistent problems after a brain injury, but vary from person to person. These types of memory problems can include the inability to recall events, general forgetfulness, or an inability to digest new information and ideas. Many individuals with a brain injury have a difficult time processing a memory, because they have not encoded the information properly in order to store it. The process of memory is also influenced by factors such as attention, organization, motivation, and fatigue, which may also be affected by brain injury.

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, ahair. Our first memory is the smell of our mother and the touch of her skin. A newborn’s heart rate and body responds 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 registration are attention and concentration.


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.


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.


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.

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 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

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

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 memory is 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 when 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 bike, your brain has learned through a variety of networks and hubs the details of what is needed to balance the bike.

Episodic Memory

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.

Causes of Memory Problems

In memory problems NOT related to normal aging, also called age-associated memory impairment (AAMI), there is still some controversy whether it truly exists or if there are other factors. Memory problems unrelated to normal aging can be attributed to three main causes: disease, trauma and neglect.

Disease and trauma we have little ability to control. Neglect, however, we do have control over. To quote William Earnest Healey, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”

As noted above there are various parts of memory: registration, storage and retrieval. The various locations of specific functions of the brain along with an explanation of the hubs. This background information is crucial in understanding how the brain functions. It is also important for understanding the effects of the various causes related to memory problems, which may include one or several aspects, such as having an attention problem that is causing poor storage of information. Or you may have paid attention and even concentrated on a lecture, yet you didn’t store it correctly resulting in a problem with retrieval of that information. Another example is that you got the information, stored it correctly, yet your ability to retrieve is what is at fault.

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

Disease Related Causes

In Alzheimer’s Disease, there is a decrease of the brain’s ability to produce a neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which results in the dying of neurons and the shrinking of the brain. Also, there is a buildup of plaque on the nerves themselves. This buildup causes the hubs to be disconnected and electrical dysregulation to occur.

In Parkinson’s Disease, there is a decrease in the neuromodulators, especially dopamine, which also causes the hubs to lose connection and electrical dysregulation of the brain.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an inflammation of the myelin sheath around the nerves, thus causing short circuiting in the hubs and dysregulation.

Trauma Related Causes

Trauma-related causes are due to events outside a person’s control. Each of these categories causes 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.

Neglect and Memory Problems

Both disease and trauma are in stark contrast with neglect-related causes. With disease and trauma causes, the reason for memory problems is due to events and situations outside of one’s control. The neglect-related causes are due to events where a person does have a choice and control, and makes a conscious decision not to take control of the situation.

The consequences of this decision 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.

What becomes difficult in determining causes is when, for example, someone is drinking while driving and then gets into an auto accident. How much is the memory problem due to alcohol abuse versus 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 causes.

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Dr. Diane® Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.
7 Hodges Street
N. Andover, MA 01845
Phone: (800) 500-9971


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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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