Do You Have a Terrible Memory?

Forgetfulness gets a bad rap. There are jokes about forgetfulness. You curse yourselves when you forget things. When you forget an appointment, you explain that you have a terrible memory. But do you really? Is forgetfulness always a problem?

Image of a finger with a ribbon tied to it, Do you have a terrible memory? Or is a little forgetfulness a good thing?

This is part two of my exploration of memory and memory loss. If you missed the first post, read, What Do You Remember and How. Today’s post is about forgetting or forgetfulness. It’s something we all do. It’s something many of us fear. But forgetting is to memory what yin is to yang.

Why You Forget

According to Psychology Today, we focus on understanding the world, not remembering it. In real life, there are relatively few situations where we focus on remembering—in school, preparing for a speech, and when meeting new people. 

You don’t have a terrible memory. “Memory is designed to be selective.” It’s probably better that we don’t remember every—parking spot we’ve used, password and pin code we’ve ever had, every meal we’ve ever eaten. “People who are better able to prune away irrelevant events are also better able to remember pertinent events, a phenomenon known as adaptive forgetting.”

We do not remember days; we remember moments. 

Cesare Pavese

Types of Forgetting

Storage Failure happens when you cannot anchor the memory properly (perhaps because of a lack of focus) or the storage system (your brain) is damaged.

Interference happens when a bit of new information overwrites older information. The article in Psychology today uses the analogy of writing something in sand, then writing something else over the top of that.

Retrieval Failure happens when you can’t access a certain piece of information even though we know it’s there. Most of you have had the experience of attempting to tell someone a name (of  a person, place, book, movie, etc.) but couldn’t think of it. Then hours later, the name pops into your head. 

Protective forgetting is a psychologically motivated type of forgetting. It shields you from discomfort. If you remember how your friend hurt you, forgiveness and moving on may be impossible. 

Finally, Decay may play a part in forgetting. This theory suggests that our memories fade with time. 

Normal Forgetfulness

You have heard of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Likely you associate both with forgetfulness or memory problems.

You might worry that forgetting an appointment might be a sign of memory loss. But we all occasionally forget a name, the right word, or an appointment, then remember them later. We all forget how to get to an address we don’t visit often. And we all get confused about the day of the week or the date, but figure it out later. 

Normal forgetfulness and normal age-related memory loss are , according to Mayo Clinic, generally manageable and don’t disrupt your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.” 

A question mark next to a silhouette of a head with gears inside--do you have a terrible memory?

Memory Problems

There are two general terms that describe memory problems: Amnesia and Dementia. Both are “umbrella” terms (terms that cover several conditions). 

“Amnesia refers to the loss of memories, such as facts, information and experiences. Though forgetting your identity is a common plot device in movies and television, that’s not generally the case in real-life amnesia.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines dementia as  “a usually progressive condition (such as Alzheimer’s disease) marked by the development of multiple cognitive deficits (such as memory impairment, aphasia, and the inability to plan and initiate complex behavior) … dementia is diagnosed only when both memory and another cognitive function are each affected severely enough to interfere with a person’s ability to carry out routine daily activities. — The Journal of the American Medical Association”

Between 60% to 80% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s according to WebMD. But there are as many as 50 other causes of dementia.

If you are concerned about memory problems in yourself or a loved one, online quizzes and information are not enough. Please consult your physician. Or consult a neuropsychologist for cognitive-behavioral testing and evaluation.

In Conclusion

Forgetting things gets a bad rap. I know I have a terrible memory. And I’m certain I frequently use all five types of forgetting. But there’s a difference between normal forgetfulness and memory problems such as amnesia and dementia. Memory and memory loss are huge, complex subjects. My posts are a simple introduction to the concepts and diseases that affect our memory. Did you learn something? If you have concerns about yourself or a loved one, please contact your health care provider. Stay tuned. We’ll discuss amnesia and dementia in more detail soon. 

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