First off the blocks is…memory! That funny little cognitive ability that’s vital to function adequately and survive as human beings. A huge topic that, thanks to working in a memory clinic, has been very much front of mind for me recently. Whilst I most commonly work with older adults, memory complaints are not uncommon in the younger age-groups. These memory symptoms or ‘failures’ are becoming increasingly more prevalent in the current climate of chronic overstimulation, usually at the hands of technology, and/or just having too much on our proverbial plates.
I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find an adult who hasn’t at some point complained about their memory, or perceived lack thereof. We all know someone who’s “terrible with names”, or "can’t even remember what I ate for breakfast”. Or maybe that’s you, and you’re the one consistently feeling as though your mind is a sieve.
Now it’s important to note that for the purpose of the current piece, I’m going to focus on the correct or healthy function of the memory system, rather then delve too deeply into what happens when it starts to break down. We know there are myriad reasons; including dementia, brain injury, or various other medical and developmental conditions that can impact on an individual’s memory function. Unfortunately, there are far too many to cover in today’s post! So please keep that in mind as you read on.
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What is memory?
When you’re introduced to someone and given their name, this information enters our short-term memory. Unfortunately, if you’re like me, and spend too much time concentrating on not stuffing up the handshake, or get distracted by trying to be a normal, non-socially-awkward individual, short-term memory is the beginning and end for that little piece of information, and then it’s gone soon after.
But, in other less awkward situations, that name might get rehearsed a little bit while it’s sitting in our short-term memory, which helps encode it, and transfer it to our long-term memory for storage. A week or two later, when you see this person again, their name has (hopefully) been encoded well enough, that you’re able to retrieve it easily from your long-term stores in time to say hello.
Forgetting (it’s normal!)
Funnily enough – another vital function of a healthy memory system is actually the ability to forget. Seems strange right? But think of the consequences of a memory system that was not designed to allow us to forget. Every tiny little insignificant piece of information that crossed your mind or your sensory organs from day to day would be stored, competing with more important things in the filing cabinet of your memory system. Who cares what your colleague ate for breakfast last week? Or how many times the smoke detector squealed when you burnt your toast this morning?
Whilst our long-term memory storage capacity is considered to be infinite, having some control over what information we commit to memory is definitely a good thing.
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From a functional perspective, using a diary, calendar, setting reminders, or simply writing notes to yourself and placing them strategically around the house all work a treat. We all rely on memory aides – and as our lives get busier, our need for them increases.
Meditation is another way to help clear your mind and pave the way for the important stuff to be able to ‘stick’ in your memory. Frequent, simple mindfulness practices have been shown to improve memory function in healthy individuals, both young and old. I even decided to venture into the world of meditation last year, which you can read about here.
- Take Ten Breaths - Pause and take ten slow, deep breaths, while bringing your focus to the sounds and sensations of your breath. Try to let other thoughts come and go, as though they are passing cars. You can then try expanding your awareness, by simultaneously noticing your breathing and sensations in your body.
- Notice Five Things – Pause for a moment and look around, noticing five things you can see, hear, and feel in contact with your body (your watch against your wrist, your legs against your chair). Try noticing these sensations simultaneously.
- Drop Anchor – Plant your feet into the floor, pushing them down, noticing the floor supporting you beneath your feet. Notice the muscle tension in your legs as you push down, then notice the feeling in your entire body, as gravity flows down through your head, spine, legs, and feet.
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Also, remember to be kind to yourself! Don’t beat yourself up, because there’s usually a simple explanation for why something slipped through the cracks, and more often than not, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
If you or someone close to you is experiencing memory symptoms that appear to be more serious, consult your doctor for further information.