Memory – Problems and Techniques: Basics

·         How Memory functions

·         Causes of Memory problems

·         Some techniques to improve memory functioning


How Memory functions

There are various steps to memory functioning: 

Creating, Storing, or Laying-down a memory:

1.  We need to OBSERVE & ATTEND properly to the detail [data] that we wish to store / commit to memory.
This also implies that our APPARATUS must be intact and READY to function:  Just as a deaf person can’t lay down sound data because the apparatus is not intact, our brain memory functioning may be impaired by “faults” like inappropriate structure, tumours, or other damage.  This includes the absence, scarcity or overabundance of certain chemicals [e.g. neuro-transmitters] which may cause malfunction in this or the Retrieval stage. If your brain is dyslexic, you may find it extremely difficult to “remember” correct spelling of even easy words.                
We also need to ATTEND properly to the details we wish to remember:  How many times do we “hear” or “read” a message incorrectly?  – This is often the reason couples land in psychotherapy!  So, many people who are NOT dyslexic may spell words like “percieve” incorrectly because they did not Attend to the rules or examples as they learnt to write:  “e” follows “I” except after “c”:  believe, but perceive.

2.  We need to incorporate the memory data in an appropriate CONTEXT [as in a pc file / folder/ type etc].          
Our memory is STATE DEPENDENT:  We best remember data in CONTEXT, especially emotional and sensory context.  When the brain is in one chemical State, it easily recalls memories created in a similar state, and has great difficulty accessing memories created in a different state.  In effect, when you memorise facts while sober, you will find it very hard to recall them when drunk, and vice versa;  but when you memorise and recall in a similar state, recall is over 75%:  So if you’re drunk when studying, drink again when you write your exam, or otherwise stay sober for both! [Students, please note, this was an illustrative joke, NOT advice!]    
Think back to some memorable smells from your youth:  wet dogs at the beach can bring up a vivid picture of a specific day, including feelings of, for instance, exhilaration, the colour of the Frisbee they were chasing, sound of seagulls, freshness of the breeze, etc.  Or the smell of your favourite comfort food:  what are the childhood memories elicited?  The people/person involved?  The meaning it gave to your life?        
The same state dependency holds for emotional [i.e. chemical!] states:  when you’re depressed [i.e. have too little “feel good” chemicals like Serotonin or Noradrenalin in your brain] it’s extremely difficult to recall the positive memories, with associated thoughts, conclusions and sense of e.g. powerfulness or efficacy that you [or others] have had when you’re feeling happy.  That’s the difficulty:  the very things we need to feel un-depressed are the things that are extremely difficult to access.           
Similarly, if you’re fearful, angry or anxious [with e.g. too much adrenalin and similar “arousal” or “feel bad” chemicals flooding your brain], it’s very difficult to access the memories, thoughts and conclusions of a happy, peaceful state, which would be important for changing the state.        
That means:  feeling happy, non-anxious / powerful and positive generally requires hard and consistent work, especially when you’re experiencing circumstances that evoke opposite states.

3.  We add PRIORITY [usually emotional content or outcome significance] to the data.   
If something impacts us strongly, for instance, if strong negative or positive emotions are involved, the memory created has a higher impact priority than if the effect of the experience on us is small.  Usually larger parts of the brain or more “survival” parts of the brain are involved in such memories. Any form of Trauma can create very resilient negative memories, with negative “automatic” responses to trigger stimuli:  The Vietnam veterans [and anyone else with “shell shock” type of trauma] would typically dive behind a defensive structure if a car backfired in a street in their home town, far from the war, and assume a defensive posture or even pull out weapons to fire back at the “enemy”.           
Similarly, a strong positive memory [again, comfort food, or victory experiences like beating a strong opponent in sport, or your wedding day, etc] can be recalled vividly, with all the associated positive emotions, postures, facial expression, and positive outlook.

Retaining a memory:

In order to retain memory over time / create a Long-term memory we need to add priority, impact [emotional attachment or vividness], or reinforcement through repetition.  Non-impactful experiences and data that we encounter only once or occasionally, are forgotten soon; they are short-term memories.  Think of an object or document or programme that you seldom use:  we easily forget where it is, or how it works [like the few times a year I decide to use the Publisher programme on my pc!].  When we reinforce a memory [e.g. through prioritising or repetition], the tracks are laid down more permanently in the brain, in areas for long-term or for traumatic memories, for instance; these are the things we can remember despite even old age.  Repetition in itself is effective enough to create long-term memories – like an ugly jingle in an advertisement for a product in which you have no interest – these annoying tunes can stay with us, persistently over a very, very long time!

Retrieving a memory:

So it’s “on the tip of my tongue”? [Hope the answer you’re seeking is not “Arsenic”!] Accessing memories accurately is dependent firstly on them having been stored correctly.  It’s also dependent on the amount of distraction [e.g. anxiety or exhaustion] you’re experiencing when trying to access or retrieve the memory.  And – as explained before – on the brain state you’re in, whether it’s similar enough to the “programme’ or “format” in which the memory was stored.  PC-literate people will know that if you try to open, say a .jpg or an .xls file in a .doc [Word] programme, you’re likely to get something unreadable:  the tip of the tongue idea of “I know what should be there but I just can’t make it out properly” comes into play.  It’s important to maximise accessibility / retrieval by proper storage and by attention focus and same-state principles.

Causes of Memory problems

The causes are naturally related to the functioning explained above.     
We may have structural, chemical or attentional interference with the proper laying down of the memory tracks.  Or we may be in a state of mind that makes it difficult to recall memories created in other states, or a strong positive or negative memory may involve our brain in a way that prevents access to memories of lesser priority:  Its really hard to remember the 13x table while you’re running away from a ferocious grizzly bear;  unfortunately it’s also hard to recall the possible consequences the next day if you’re in the throes of ecstatic overeating, gambling, sex, shopping on your credit card, or playing pc games deep into the night!   

It is important to realise that memory may be the most observed impaired brain function in such situations, but [except in, for instance, localised damage to memory centres in the brain] it’s usually only one of many cognitive functions [thinking skills] that are impaired:  Clinicians [like Clinical Psychologists, Psychiatrists or Occupational Therapist] will often also note, for instance, slowing down of thinking [“slowed information-processing” – makes me think of how my pc worked before Morné Beck of told me to buy a ton of extra RAMS!  This is pertinent:  the more “crisis” programmes / stress we load onto our brains for processing, the slower they work – at least until we find ways to “add resources”].  In addition to general “cognitive impairment”, slowed processing, and memory problems, people in chronic stress, anxious or depressed states are usually also unable to focus on anything not directly involved with the prevailing negative state and show deficits in concentration and attention – which would, of course, interfere with memory creation or accessing.

The Chemical factor:     
Apart from structural brain damage factors such as tumours, stroke, traumatic brain injury, genetic malformation etc, chemical states that become repeated, habitual, or chronic can dramatically impair memory.  Menopause is a classic example, or any long-term stress, anxiety or depression states.              
This is important:  in severe, long-term depression, for instance, the memory impairment can be indistinguishable from that in, for instance, Alzheimer’s disease!  Sometimes the correct diagnosis is only made after the Depressive state has remitted, often only after several months of treatment, with medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy including hypnosis, and sometimes even long-term hospitalisation with electroconvulsive therapy [“Shock Treatment”, ECT].           
People often don’t realise the effect of cumulative Life Stress [such as defined by Holmes and Rahe in the 1970’s] on the brain.  If you’ve moved home regularly, changed jobs or relationships a few times, been Ill or supported loved ones in serious Illness, been promoted at work or social organisations – over several months, your resources are likely to need regular replenishment in the form of self-care [including good nutrition and healthy exercise], uplifting or relaxing recreation, support systems, meditative [trance] states, etc. for you not to develop deficits in physical, mental or emotional health [or all three!].

Diagnostic Tests include Interviews, Mini-Mental state test, general individual IQ tests, and formal tests of memory function like the Wechsler memory tests.  Most commercially available Aptitude tests also have tests of memory function, and some self-tests are available in libraries or on the internet.  A simple self-test would be to learn a list of 10 items for 30 seconds:  you should be able to recall all ten one minute later and at least 8 after 30 minutes.

Some techniques to improve memory function

There are many self-help resources available to help you improve specific memory functions, like learning and retaining shopping lists or appointments.  If your memory problems seem severe, or deteriorate suddenly, you should best consult a suitably trained and qualified clinical psychologist to assist you with diagnosis, through interviews and possibly some neuropsychological tests.  If necessary s/he may refer you to e.g. a neurologist for scans, or a psychiatrist who can help assess which medication, for instance, can best help treat a psychological causative factor, etc.                
The informed psychologist can also select some techniques to teach you to help improve memory functions or even advise you about food supplements [such as Vit E, Vit B and Omega Fatty Acids] that may be helpful in improving functioning, or refer you to appropriate persons to help you create nutrition and exercise habits that will support improved cognitive functioning.

Here are a few simple techniques you can begin to use to improve memory function:

·         Attend and repeat:  Wolfgang Riebe [see] demonstrates how to remember strangers’ names by [1] attending carefully to the introduction, [2] asking for the spelling to be confirmed, [3] immediately repeating the name at least 5 times in the process, [4] associating the name with a feature of the person or his/her clothing [e.g. if Deidre is wearing a green dress one cold pun [in thought!] on “dear-green”, or imagine a picture of a deer – with Deidre’s brown curly hair etc – trying to drink from a dry green trough, etc], and [5] test and repeat soon after.  Never underestimate repetition – out loud: after all, that’s how most 80 year old people still remember their multiplication tables from primary school!

·         Write it down – in as few symbols as poss – pref w diagrm or abbr!

·         Use mnemonic devices, like rhyming words or anagrams.

·         Tell someone else in as much detail as possible, using all 5 senses, and movement:  Instead of “My bag was just stolen” tell the story – “I was sidling past a large man in a green pull-over when I felt a tug on my right arm.  I clutched the leather strap of my beige Gucci bag tightly and jerked my arm back, but saw the flash of a knife in a male hand, the grey sleeve above it, and then I saw my bag disappear from view.  I heard myself scream and saw people giving chase.  There was a smell of candyfloss and something like burnt oil…”  As you tell sensory and event details, you will be able to access the same brain STATE as the event and thus more easily recall further details associated with it.

·         For the same reason, you can either re-visit the scene, or look at pictures of it [for instance, of your childhood people and places if you have “few/no” memories of that period of your life], or create a vivid story about that time and space – and it doesn’t have to be “true”, just “plausible” or “probable”, for you to begin accessing more memories.

·         Recreate as far as possible the same situation and state in which you will need to recall memories [e.g. of exam material that you are studying] while you are learning the material:  if you will be sitting at a desk, without food, drink, music or pyjamas, in a cool room, with a pen and paper in use, when writing your exam, it will be useful to lay down memory tracks in similar conditions to create a similar state [or you could study in a lion cage to create a fear state, I suppose!]

·         Always test your memory and access path soon after noting the data: if you parked in bay K5 in the blue level, test this memory as you walk towards the elevator and glance back to check your facts just before you leave the area.

·         If necessary keep small book or diary handy at all times – like the one my 73 year old friend Adrian fits neatly into his shirt pockets, or a student I counselled after brain trauma wore on a thong around her neck:  it’s better to look over-efficient than stupid!

·         Repeating affirmations like “It’s so easy for me to remember things” or “If I just wait a few seconds it will come back to me” will help to decrease interferences from anxiety or depressed states as you’re creating Efficacy and Success positive states in the brain by such affirmations. 

·         Similarly, adjusting your posture and facial expressions to confident and cheerful ones, is likely to increase your ability to create or recall memory tracks in the brain effectively, by suggesting to the brain that it CAN attend to the information since there are no threats to survival that need all your attention first.

·         Stop multi-tasking when you lay down memory tracks:  immerse yourself in the event or material at hand; enjoy it, then pause for 3 seconds [or longer in complex tasks] before focussing on the next task.  However, restfully allowing your attention to wander slightly around the topic and associate it with pleasant images, may enhance recall under stressful conditions than anxious over-focus might.

·         Guess!  It’s actually more likely to be accurate than wrong, and even if your first guess is not correct you may by association arrive at the correct memory quite soon if you remain positive, humorous, and playful!

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