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. 

What Do You Remember and How?

What do you remember and how do you remember one thing and your sibling remembers something else? Human memory is complex. We try to replicate it with computers and A.I. Technology. But we barely understand how human memory works. Or where we store our memories. Or how and what corrupts our memory. Scientific examination and study of memory only began in recent history. 

Image of a brain with lightning coming out of it illustrates memory retrieval but do you understand what you do remember and how

The Study of Memory

The scientific study of memory didn’t begin until fairly late in human history. Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909), a German psychologist, pioneered the study of memory. The “father of experimental psychology of memory” began his first experiment in late 1878. He published his study, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology (Über das Gedächtnis in the original German), in 1885. They published the English version in 1913.

His study had many limitations. The major one being that his only subject was himself. But he made many discoveries: the forgetting curve, spacing effect, and the learning curve. You can read more about his discoveries on Wikipedia or on Flash Card Learner.

What is Memory?

Even our everyday definition of memory is complex. Memory is—

1a: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained especially through associative mechanisms–began to lose his memory as he grew older

b: the store of things learned and retained from an organism’s activity or experience as evidenced by modification of structure or behavior or by recall and recognition–has a good memory for faces

2a: commemorative remembrance–erected a statue in memory of the hero

b: the fact or condition of being remembered–days of recent memory

3a: a particular act of recall or recollection–has no memory of the event

b: an image or impression of one that is remembered–fond memories of her youth

c: the time within which past events can be or are remembered–within the memory of living men

4a: a device (such as a chip) or a component of an electronic device (such as a computer or smartphone) in which information can be inserted and stored and from which it may be extracted when wanted–especially: RAM

b: capacity for storing information–512 megabytes of memory

5: a capacity for showing effects as the result of past treatment or for returning to a former condition—used especially of a material (such as metal or plastic)

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

According to Boundless Psychology there is a simpler definition. Memory is “the ability of an organism to record information about things or events with the facility of recalling them later at will.”

Stages of Memory

The three stages of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Encoding is the process of receiving, processing, and combining information. 

Storage is the process by which we keep memory for a time. 

The third stage of memory, retrieval, is also called recall or recognition. Something triggers us to recall a memory and use it in a process or activity.

Types of Memory

Scientists have identified three major types of memory: Sensory, Short Term, and Long Term. 

Sensory memory is a detailed representation of an entire sensory experience. It is not a conscious process. There are many types of sensory memories. The most frequently studied include iconic (visual) memories, echoic (auditory) memories, and haptic (tactile) memories.

Short Term Memory, also known as working memory, lasts for about twenty seconds. We can only store about five to nine “items” in short term memory. However, we can move these items to long-term memory via what scientists call rehearsal. Rehearsal or repetition is the act of repeating the memory over and over. 

Long Term memory includes anything we hold in memory for longer than twenty seconds. Scientists have identified many types of long-term memory, too many to discuss in a brief, introductory blog post. 

More to Come

This blog post is a brief introduction into what you remember and how. Over the next few months we’ll look deeper into the mystery and complexities of memories retained and lost.

I find human memory fascinating. The lack of and haunting presence of memory plays a part in my series, My Soul to Keep. In the next few posts, we’ll touch on diseases of memory. Diseases you may be interested in like Alzheimer’s and dementia and White Matter disease. And if you’re interested, we’ll discuss trauma-induced memory loss. Do you have other questions or topics regarding memory that you’d like me to discuss?