Have you ever wondered how someone with memory loss forgets things they just did or important events and people in their past? How can they forget what they ate for lunch today but are able to remember exactly what they were doing the day President Kennedy was shot? How can people with Alzheimer’s or amnesia not recognize their spouses or children? Some memory loss occurs during the process of aging, while other memory loss may occur from things such as Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors or injuries, amnesia, drug and/or alcohol abuse, medications, emotional issues, or depression.
- Where is information stored? There are storage areas in the brain. Our long-term memory stores memories from things in the past like memories of our childhood and other events in our lives and facts we have learned during our lives. Our short-term memory stores things momentarily while we take a mental picture or repeat it over to ourselves (encode) so that we will remember it later. If these memories do not get encoded, they will simply be forgotten and never get to our long-term memory where they could be retrieved for future use.
- There are three storage units in our long-term memory. There are two storage “tanks” in our declarative memory section of the brain, and one “tank” in our procedural memory section. There is a “tank” for episodic memory, which stores our memories of childhood and events in the past, and there is a “tank” for semantic memory, which stores meanings, understandings and knowledge that we have learned throughout our lives. In the procedural “tank” are things we have learned to do in our life, which are often automatic. After we encode something in our short-term memory because we want to remember it, it goes to one of the three “tanks” in our long-term memory.
- There is some normal memory loss as we age. We start losing a few brain cells and brain chemicals some time in our twenties and this loss increases as we age. The more brain cells we lose and the older we get, the more our memory is affected and the more apt we are to forget. This loss can cause our brain to store information in a different way and become harder to recall. Some of the things that happen normally as we age are forgetting where we put something, or forgetting someone’s name that we just met. That type of aging memory loss or forgetting can be helped by making lists, keeping a calendar or daily planner, repeating a person’s name over a couple of times or making some type of association with their name to help us remember, putting our things in the same place all the time, and keeping your mind active by doing things like crossword puzzles or memory games.
- What happens to the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia related disorders? There is a chemical in the brain called acetylcholine that carries messages from one nerve cell to another. In Alzheimer’s, this chemical breaks down and communication between the cells cannot occur. This results in memory loss. At first only the short-term memory is affected, and the person can remember their past but may forget something that has just happened. As more and more chemical breakdown occurs, the disease worsens and all memory is affected.
- In general, there are four major reasons why people forget. Forgetting can be simply a matter of retrieval failure. For some reason we just can’t bring back the memory. Another cause of forgetting can be caused by a newer memory being similar to an older memory, and the newer memory covers up the older memory. This could also happen when an older memory is so strong it covers up the newer memory. Another thing that could happen is the memory failed the encoding process and never got to long-term memory. Finally, there are sometimes events that people don’t want to remember. The event is still in their memory, but they are unable to recall it because it is too traumatic to retrieve. They just want to forget it forever!!
Tip: If your memory problems are affecting your daily activities, consult your doctor. Your problem may be treatable.