“If my memory serves me correctly …” When our minds are preoccupied with more pertinent thoughts, we can tend to forget something minor or for the moment before it comes back. This is normal for anyone at any age (even kids).
But there’s more than one type of memory – and more than just short-term and long-term memory. Memory, too, is more than just a reverie of past events and people. Our collective memories weave into a tapestry of individuality – a significant part of our distinctive selves.
There are seven types of memory. Short-term memory is like a gatekeeper, storing incoming information temporarily to either let go or hold onto, for transfer into long-term memory. Short-term memory lasts up to 30 seconds. Also referred to as working memory, this necessary type of memory ensures you stop at the bank, peel the potatoes for dinner, and make a phone call.
Long-term memory is subdivided into two major specific types simply because long-term memory is architecturally more complex. That Facebook post you read about three minutes ago? It’s a new file added into your long-term memory. The name of your new co-worker you were just introduced to right after you clicked out of Facebook? Also relegated to long-term memory. Slight but important difference between these two examples: you will not likely need to remember that post about the dog with superpowers, but you will need to remember your new associate’s name. The strength of your new memories vary due to how often you need to retrieve and use them.
Both explicit memory and implicit memory are forms of long-term memory and each has its own function.
Explicit memory is also known as declarative memory and is characterized by the necessitating conscious thought to recall the name of something, how far you ran on the treadmill this morning, etc.
Explicit memory is divided into two types – episodic and semantic.
Episodic memory is the type of mental snapshot that you dredge up on occasion – that incident at the 4th grade Christmas pageant, your grandfather’s pipe and how he smiled in bliss when he was left to enjoy it thinking nobody else was around. These are primarily autobiographical in nature, they’re all about you.
Episodic memories are purely subjective and can alter through time. According to one resource, “Studies have shown that autobiographical memories aren’t necessarily accurate because we reconstruct them over time and they change and adapt to the new context in which we recall them. Our ability to retain episodic memories depends on how emotionally powerful the experiences were.” This is the type of memory that can be communal – as in a shared significant experience (eg, the day John Lennon got shot, 9/11).
Semantic memory is described by one source as “what enables us to say, without knowing exactly when and where we learned,” that a whale is a mammal, that the “kings” of ancient Egypt were known as pharaohs, the letter “n” follows the letter “m,” and that our sun is a star.
Implicit memory is akin to something being cemented, ingrained, indelible. Typing – after learning the keyboard. Speaking, after learning how. Procedural memory is similar and encompasses how to do something, hence, “procedural.” Both are memory that does not need conscious thought to retrieve. You just do.
Meanwhile, another source identifies an 8th form of memory – sensory memory. This is what occurs when you immediately sense something. Think of it as meandering through a bazaar: you touch things, see things, hear sounds. Sensory memory is lightning quick if not faster: it takes only 200 to 500 milliseconds to record and stores as you sense things in your environment.
In the brain, both declarative and episodic memory are believed to occur in the part of the medial temporal lobe, which also houses the limbic system (including the amygdala, hypothalamus and hippocampus, among others that supports the processing of various memory). The aforementioned “gatekeeper,” is the hippocampus, which works to transfer short-term to long-term and also controls spatial memory.
The amygdala largely supports the processing and memory of emotional reactions. The striatum (part of the basal ganglia system) helps form and retrieve procedural memories.
Tips to Improve Memory
Challenging yourself to improve your memory is fun and free. It’s also something you can share with family, friends and co-workers. There are several tricks to try, according to one source:
Clenching a fist: A study of 51 participants asked to memorize a list of 72 words and clench their alternate fists, found that those who made a tight right-hand fist first creates a stronger memory while clenching the left fist improves recalling that memory. While learning, make a right-hand fist, and when remembering that information, make a left-hand fist. This will improve your memory.
Get out of your comfort zone: Following routine, doing things by rote, and letting habits dominate can all conspire to increase forgetfulness as the mind is not being challenged. Do something a new way, give your dominant hand a break by using the other one to do tasks like opening doors and brushing teeth, take a new path to work, read a different news source in the morning. Doing so enhances your neuroplasticity.
Learn new skills: Learning a new skill or taking up a hobby (which requires learning) are excellent ways to keep memory functioning well. It sounds counter-intuitive but learning by doing, trial and error and retrial serves to improve memory health more than learning by reading to memorize.
Doodle: Let your mind wander and control your writing hand – like automatic writing, doodling is a deep-mind exercise. And, as a case study of a medical student shows, when she doodled for 30 minutes her memory improved. She said, “When I look at the daily doodles they trigger my memory. I can take myself back to the time when I was reflecting and drawing the doodle. I also remember what I did that particular day.”
Create a mnemonic: A mnemonic is a technique that uses the creation of unique associations about facts that make it easy to recall those facts. For example, to remember the difference between “cavalry” and “calvary,” – “victory” before “lord” (Cavalry) or “lord before victory (calvary). The former word is a basic reference to military and battle, while the latter refers to religion. A popularly used mnemonic helps children to recall the proper order of colors in the spectrum (Roy G. Biv), for example.
Mind your microbiota: Results of one murine study showed that subjects supplemented with a symbiotic performed significantly better than other groups in the spatial memory test, though not in that of associative memory.
Aging, entering middle-age can seem like it causes memory loss, but if you are healthy, it doesn’t. Stress to meet family and financial and work obligations can lead to minor temporary forgetfulness, and women who are in peri-menopause and post-menopause also can have “foggy” memory. Follow some of these tips, keep your mind engaged, eat a healthy diet with proper supplementation, learn to relax and unwind, and your memory will serve you correctly.