Memory: A Multi-Faceted Mystery

Memory is an elusive thing. Just ask anyone and they’ll quickly be able to come up with an anecdote of a memory loss freefall. The mere thought of it often elicits nervous laughter or a resurgence of the embarrassment we felt at the time. How ironic to be able to remember forgetting so well. How frustrating when we find ourselves remembering unimportant information about the potato salad someone brought to a picnic a year ago, but when we go to introduce a loved one at a gathering we come up blank. Why is memory so difficult, so nuanced, so complicated?

A good starting place is to understand that unlike many brain processes that are housed in a specific region, memory is stored all over the brain. Memory neuropathways must network across all domains of the brain to source information  – language, emotion, sensory, neuromotor, visual, auditory, and more. What has to happen in order for a cohesive memory to surface in our conscious mind is quite fantastic. It is as if a well-rehearsed symphony springs into action and produces a beautiful concerto ~ except instead of music what we experience is a meaningful montage of images, sights, sounds, emotions, sensations, words, and information. When we take a moment to ponder all that has to connect and synthesize in order for a memory to form, it is amazing we remember as much as we do.

How efficiently our individual brains are wired often dictates the ease or difficulty with which we can recall.  For a rare few the experience of recalling something from memory consistently feels efficient and effortless. For some it is always frustrating, cloudy, and slow. For most of us, however, it is inconsistent and extremely dependent on how regulated we are: our physical state (tired or hungry vs. alert and energized), how well our attentional systems are working, whether we struggle with a learning disability or difficulty, our emotional well-being, and more. We all know how hard it is to remember something when we are tired, stressed or rushed. We also know how much easier it can be to recall things when we are relaxed, regulated and calm.

The next question that often follows is…..why are we so good at remembering some things but not others? Why can Timmy remember the tie Uncle George accidentally dragged through the chili at a family reunion 6 years ago but he can’t remember his times tables after endless drills? Why can Sandra remember all the dates of all the wars America has ever been involved in and the major Generals who led them, but not be able to remember to take her pill every morning? Inconsistent memory is one of the number one catalysts for tension between parents & teachers and children – how can you remember every name of all the Pokemon characters but not remember the story you just read? How can you remember the highly variable dates when your favorite video game is being released, but not your father’s birthday which happens at the same time every year?Because all memories are not created equal. Because there are over 40 types of memory and each individual varies in their skill and efficiency with each one. Because the intensity of emotion that accompanies the memory has an enormous amount to do with our ability to find it in the nether regions of our grey matter. For example, if the memory of your broken leg was stored in your episodic memory, then what you will recall is the scenario and context in which the event occurred. If your memory of the same broken leg is semantic in nature you won’t be able to recall the events surrounding the injury but rather the name of the bones broken, what kind of cast you had, and how long it took to heal. If the memory is an emotional one, the crux of recalling the broken limb rides in on a wave of resentment at the older brother who pushed you off of your bike and made it happen. If auditory memory is strong, it is the sounds surrounding the accident which act as the foundation of the memory – the screeching bike, a scream, the ambulance siren are what helps you remember what happened. I could keep going but I think you get the picture. Each of us store memories with our own individual skill, efficiency, and capability. Thus, when we go to retrieve something from the vaults, it will come back to us in the way it was stored.

Some of us have an enormous capacity to store a wide variety of types of memory; and those who do have an easier time in school, managing their responsibilities, becoming independent, maintaining friendships, telling stories & jokes, enjoy reading, and so much more. Those who have a very narrow ability to store memories will chronically recall a thin sliver of what we might want them to remember and often do not find joy in learning, struggle with social relationships, do not read for pleasure, and avoid games and other activities that involve memory. It is important for teachers and caregivers to keep in mind that the children who have a short list of memory recall capability at their disposal often excel at episodic, visual, and emotional memories because those are the most experiential and sensory based of the memory types. The trick is to use a child’s strengths in memory to bolster their weaknesses. That if procedural memory is poor and thus sequencing is weak then high affect, movement, visual aids and experiential learning is far more likely to bear results as teaching methods than rote worksheets, point systems & consequences, and repetition.