What is… memory?

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.

This week’s term: memory

Memory is highly complex.  There are multiple different types of memory, and multiple areas of the brain that are involved.  Memories not only need to be encoded in the first place, but they also need to be stored and then retrieved when needed in the future.  Retrieval can involve either recognition (recognizing a stimulus when presented) or recall (spontaneously producing information).  Recall may be easier in the same physical location where the learning occurred.

Explicit memory comes under conscious control, and includes semantic memory (general knowledge) and episodic memory (memories of events).  Types of episodic memory include autobiographical memory (things related to the self), and flashbulb memories, which involve important events at a specific point in time.

Implicit memory is what’s humming along behind the scenes. Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory that allows us to go on autopilot with routine tasks, like brushing our teeth.  With priming, retrieval of a task-associated memory speeds up after doing the task.

Short-term memory is limited to around 18 seconds.  Experiments have found that when recalling numbers, such as a ten-digit phone number, it is easier to remember numbers in chunks of 3+3+4 digits rather than trying to remember the 10 digits as a single unit.  When trying to recall a phone number we may repeat it to ourselves over and over in order to hold it in working memory; this is referred to as a phonological loop.

Working memory is a type of short-term memory that holds material available for processing and manipulation.  Working memory capacity is correlated with complex cognitive task performance, including reading comprehension and problem-solving.  Working memory function tends to decline in advanced age.

Another type of short-term memory is sensory memory, which holds sensory details from the massive amount of stimuli picked up by our senses for a very brief time, around one second.

Our long-term memory capacity is enormous. Sleep enhances memory encoding in long-term memory, and allows neural connections to be strengthened.

Different types of memory work occur in different areas of the brain.  The prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe are involved in working memory, while the hippocampus is the major structure involved in long-term memory.  The amygdala is involved in emotional memory, and plays a significant role in trauma memories.

Stress can interfere with working memory, memory encoding, and the functioning of the hippocampus.  Intensely stressful events may be so intolerable to the mind that they are repressed from conscious awareness.

There is a broad range of illnesses that can affect memory.  In Alzheimer’s Disease, protein plaques invade the brain.  In traumatic brain injury, there may be physical damage to areas of the brain involved in memory.  Bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder have both been associated with decreases in size of the hippocampus.  Abnormalities in the hippocampus have also been associated with PTSD and anxiety disorders.

I’ve definitely noticed that depression has an effect on my memory.  I do much better with recognition than I do with recall.  Spontaneously trying to fish things out of the recesses of my memory can be problematic, but I know the information (at least some of it) is still in there, because it’ll sometimes pop up unannounced when I’m not looking for it.  I’ve learned to make note of things quickly because I know my working memory isn’t going to hold onto it very long.

Is memory something that’s a problem for you?  Do you have any tricks you use?



You can find the rest of my What Is series here.


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14 thoughts on “What is… memory?

  1. BeckiesMentalMess.wordpress.com says:

    Very interesting subject matter. I noticed that when I was on certain medications in the past, my short-term memory was evident. I would talk to another and tell them about what happened during the day, and draw a complete blank mid-sentence. This really bothered me. I believe it was due to taking the seroquel at night. Sine not taking it, I’ve become a bitter sharper now.
    However… Long-term memory is something at times I wish I didn’t have. There are some memories I wish would leave and get out of my head.

  2. Liz says:

    I notice my memory gets worser, as the stress gets worse. I have been a scatter brain since before Christmas with everything and the new things cropping up this month.

    I like my planner to be monthly visual base. I made my own diary this year so I could have a monthly planner that was large enough for my needs. I have been using this style for a couple a years, or more and found it works best for me.

    I like to use lists or little reminder notes for some things too.

  3. kbr0632 says:

    Memory is very hard for me at times..and can bring on quite embarrassing and then fearful responses. At the age of 46, I fear that I have early onset dementia at times because of my memory. I try to keep it together…and act ..by writing notes or putting things in my phones, so not to be completely blindsided. But there are times that (maybe due to stress) I have a hard time remembering things and it scares me. I will forget someone’s name and will not be “on,” which totally freaks me out.
    Very good article. What do I do? Just fake it…in hopes it will get better and no one will notice.

    • ashleyleia says:

      Yeah, sometimes fake it til you make it is probably the best thing. And it’s so hard to know what is “normal” forgetfulness and what goes above and beyond that.

  4. crushedcaramel says:

    I find this fascinating. Since my head injuries and the trauma I went through, others have identified major gaps in my memories. I don’t even know those memories are gone until it frustrates a friend or family member that those pages seem absent from my brain at the moment.
    Also I find that now, I need to write things down, otherwise I am inclined to forget the tasks I should be doing. I am glued to my diary and to-do lists for work.

      • crushedcaramel says:

        My family have noticed more gaps in memory than any additions of memories than never occurred.
        The odd thing is, I don’t know I don’t have a memory of a person or event, until it has caused others to be uncomfortable that I have not the foggiest who they are or what they are talking about.

  5. Marty says:

    Trauma memories are not accessible consciously, they are considered implicit cit memory

    These memories can activate our fight or flight mechanism.

  6. marandarussell says:

    Often I feel like my long term memory is pretty good, but my short term is shot. I feel like its been that way for years, so most of my vivid memories are from when I was much younger.

  7. Paula Light says:

    I have a good memory for written data, but not things spoken. Sometimes I will forget a thing said to me within minutes, but if I read it I might remember it for years. I’ve always been this way. I take a lot of notes!

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