It’s often the case that we experience an event, later, to recall it only vaguely, or partially, or as a distortion of the facts. With the so-called illusory truth effect, what we assume we take in, or think we hear, may form in us false assumptions, attitudes, beliefs.
‘You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.’ – John Green, author.
Memory involves a process of encoding – how we take in – storing, then later retrieving data and information, as needed. It takes place in the electrochemical actions at synapses – tiny gaps between brain cells – creating neuronal connections, important for retaining new information, making decisions, solving problems.
Sensory memory can be brief, especially in taking in visual information, such as light, as well as auditory, smell and touch. When focused on, it passes into short term memory, generally around 18-30 seconds, then afterwards into long term memory. The hippocampus and amygdale in the limbic system are involved in consolidation of short term memory into long term memory; spatial memory, with neuronal connections in the neocortex.
In explicit memory, a conscious, intentional recollection occurs in the retrieval of contextual information from specific experiences and events, and formation of new episodic memories – things that happen to us – via the prefrontal cortex and limbic system. Damage or atrophy in the hippocampus can be seen in the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
‘For all of us, explicit memory makes it possible to pass, to leap across space and time and conjure up events and emotional states that have vanished into the past, yet somehow, continue to live in our minds.’ – Eric Kandel, psychiatrist, neuroscientist.
Implicit memory is motor memory, retained in the body, effortlessly, used in automatic tasks, such as riding a bike or tying one’s shoelaces, and many other unconscious patterns governing daily functions.
Memories of emotional experiences and events – such as hearing a certain piece of music, or the death of a loved one, involving biological arousal, are those most likely to be evoked and endure. Flashbulb memories are especially vivid, often with sensory elements, with immediate recall triggering, and being triggered by past events. Flashbacks are frequently reported by victims of PTSD, war, trauma, abuse, prolonged stress.
There are various and different reasons for why we forget, fail to retain and retrieve information and events: inattention, distractions – internal and external; difficulty processing – encoding failure, whereby information is not stored, or improperly stored and therefore cannot be retrieved later. This often shows up in children diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, in head-injured patients, those with dementia; also, frequently with aging, forgetting names, momentary lapses, so-called absent-mindedness.
Another reason for forgetting may be in suppressing painful memories – intentionally or subconsciously – as in the case of victims of trauma, abuse and war.
Failure to maintain mental stimulation and physical activity often adversely impacts short term recall in particular. Long term memories, those carrying an emotional charge, are less affected. We tend to forget events of a more neutral nature, as though the brain gives them less priority.
Ability to remember may be compromised by severe and prolonged stress, causing so-called ‘brain freeze’, adversely affecting situations requiring a clear, prompt response.
Memory impairment can occur through environmental or electronic pollution, as well as chemical – including excessive, prolonged use of alcohol and illicit or prescribed drugs.
Lack of quality sleep and rest is known to negatively impact our ability to remember.
We can improve our memory through stimulation and utilizing strategies, including: –
linking new information to old and to visual information
meaningful associations attached to given information
chunking data into manageable bytes or in groupings
setting reminders, post its, using organizers, etc
the act of writing down aids storage
cultivating activities that keep us mentally sharp, that stretch our abilities and capacities
practicing a healthy lifestyle, mindfulness, exercising for good circulation, there being a strong connection between a clear mind and a resilient body.
Above all, maintaining active cognitive abilities serves as important reminder and motivator for purposeful living.