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Auckland Memory Clinic

Your Memory

So, what is memory, anyway?

From birth through to death your brain will file away enormous amounts of information: facts, faces, sounds, names, and events along with the emotions tied to them. Your ability to create new memories, store them, and recall them when they are needed allows you to learn and interact with others, to learn from the past, plan for the future, or pass those all-important exams!

Memory is not one large database in your brain which records all your experiences, observations, incoming information, and miscellaneous facts and figures, filed away in some vast storage cabinet.  You are being bombarded with information every moment of the day – through eyes, ears, nose, taste, and by touch. If you remembered it all, there would be overload and chaos.

 

 

Not everything needs to be remembered and the brain has efficient ways of making sure you remember what is important. Learning new information, storing it away, and then being able to retrieve it is a complex process.

 

 

So, how does the brain sort out what we will remember?

 

 

The sorting out is through a clever chain of different memory processes.

Sensory memory  

 

This is the earliest stage of memory when sensory information from the environment is stored very briefly, usually for no longer than half a second for visual information and about 4 seconds for information we hear. You would soon be in overload if you remembered absolutely everything you saw, heard, touched, or smelt. Only the sensory information important to you passes into the next stage, short-term memory.

Short-term memory
 

This is the information you are currently aware of or thinking about. Most of the information will be stored in the short-term memory for about 30 seconds. Many short-term memories are quickly forgotten, but concentrating on the information important allows it to continue to the next stage, long-term memory. One of the ways of achieving this is by rehearsal e.g. repeating a telephone number until you dial it or write it down. Once information is stored away in the long-term memory it can stay intact for a very long time.  A special type of short-term memory is working memory. Working memory is when you work with the information such as in mental arithmetic, deciding in the supermarket whether the small or large sized article is the best buy, or evaluating strategies, for example.

Long-term memory
 

This is the continuing storage of information. Most of this information is largely outside of our awareness, but can be called to mind when required. Some of the information is fairly easy to recall, while other information is much more difficult to access. Remembering your own name, how to speak, where you went to school, where you were last year (or even five minutes ago), all depend on long-term memory.

 

 

Long-term memory is divided into two types: declarative and procedural. Declarative memory is subdivided into episodic memory  which refers to remembering particular events such as going to the doctor last week, and semantic memory which refers to our knowledge about the world – knowing the meanings of words, who is the Prime Minister etc (together known as declarative memory). Procedural memory is the ‘how to’ memory, remembering how to ride a bike, how to play the piano, how to drive a car, and so on.

Your performance in all the stages of memory can be improved. Memory is an ability which is affected by many aspects of our lives – mental agility, nutrition, exercise, rest, paying attention, controlling stress, and understanding and using skills to enhance memory performance.

 

Decide to do something about it now!

What Does Happen to Memory From 50 years, onwards?

This is an important question. If we don’t know what happens to memory, then it is hard to know what to do about it.  There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that memory decline is expected with advancing age, but what is true and what isn’t?

 

 

This was an important part of my own research into memory across the lifespan. It was important to find out just what does happen between 20 and 100 years of age for people who are healthy and enjoying the normal aging process, free of any unfortunate conditions which affect the memory.

 

 

All-in-all, we do well until well into middle age.  Yes, we do notice an increasing number of lapses, and seem to find ourselves more often saying “Oops! another senior moment!”   BUT, as you will see in the graph below, which is taken from my five-year research, memory ability (if not helped) does decline considerably in later life.  You will notice there are spaces in the age groups in the graph. In research, this is necessary to be sure to spot the differences and to have some idea just when they occur.

Research Graph:  You can see how memory ability (without help!) drops away soon after middle age.

Now, note that this research was done with people who had no special memory training. They were all healthy people living independently in the community.  It would be very interesting to do the study again, with people who did take the time and care to train their memory and keep their brains active and alert. It would present a very different picture to the rather dismal prospects in the graph! 

 

 

The great time to find out about the memory skills you need to change the memory pathway ahead for you, is NOW! 

 

You can see that at middle age, most people are still doing well – intervention at this stage of life will help immeasurably with confidence, productivity, and independence for the future.

Remember!

With some time and commitment, research is clear that you can change your own ‘personal graph’ into a much more positive picture.  You will notice that there are six different memory types in the graph above. This indicates that memory is not just one ‘thing’, but is made up of many different abilities.  Careful testing can pinpoint the specific problem areas, allowing an individualised programme to restore your memory, guard against memory loss, and revitalise brain function.

 

In the research above, the six memory types were chosen because they are all vital to living independently into late old age.

The Six Memory Areas Vital to Independence and Confidence

Working Memory - Working memory is well named!  It works very hard, indeed. Every time you make a decision, do mental arithmetic, problem solve, or work out whether the large or small packaging of a supermarket item is the best value, you are using your working memory.

 

 

Verbal Memory – You use this memory whenever you read, write, study, check street signs, listen to someone speaking and so on. Verbal memory is everything to do with written or spoken language.

Non-Verbal Memory - You need nonverbal memory for recognising objects, reading maps, understanding pictures and diagrams, remembering places you have been, recognising differences in, for instance, different types of flowers or trees, working out how articles of different shapes fit together, learning a new route, and a myriad of other abilities most people don’t really think about as a memory skill.

Short-Term Memory - Information about what you see, hear, touch, taste, and smell is passed from your five senses and arrives in your short-term memory. Most of incoming information is unnoticed and is quickly forgotten. When you look at a tree, your eyes see the shape of every leaf, the pattern of shadows and light, and how the leaves, branches, and trunk inter-relate. Unless you are an artist painting the tree this information just vanishes from the short-term memory. This highlights the important of FOCUS – focus carefully on the information that is important to you and your clever short-term memory will ‘dump’ the rest. If we remembered everything we saw, heard, touched, tasted, and smelt we would soon be in overload!

 

Face Recognition ­– Can you imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t recognise faces – this is a condition called prosopagnosia. Keeping up your skills of face recognition (and the names that go with them!) is vital.

 

Prospective Memory – Prospective memory is accurately remembering something you want to do in the future. The difficulty with prospective memory is remembering without any clues at all – unless you create them for yourself.  As people age, prospective memory becomes a trouble spot. Prospective memory is vital for independence. Remembering to turn off the heater, that there is something boiling away on the hotplate, or remembering to take medication are all examples of prospective memory.

 

Perhaps most importantly, the outcomes of the research have led to the creation of wide-ranging and practical applications for developing brain resilience and for the treatment of age-related memory loss.  This builds brain and memory resilience for confidence, productivity, and quality of life in later years.

What Is Resilience?

 

Brain resilience is the ability of the brain to resist or ‘work around’ the age-related biological changes that can have such a debilitating effect on the memory.  Building resilience, or brain ‘reserve’, allows continued brain growth and will result in sharpening your memory skills.

A prime outcome of the research was the understanding of how vital it is to actively work to keep the memory functioning well rather than just ‘hoping for the best’.  We are responsible for our health in many ways, and brain fitness is just as important, maybe even more so, than physical fitness.

Make the decision NOW to ensure your brain is kept in tip-top condition!

Check out the authored books on memory, memory loss prevention, eating for brain health, and understanding and coping with Alzheimer's in the family - as well as the popular Memory Tune memory course.