How Spatial Memory Works And Is Lost

Updated December 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Experiencing Memory Problems?

Spatial memory is not a type of memory you often hear about. It is a small subset of memory that operates both in short-term and long-term memory. It is responsible for your ability to move freely about your home, remember the route to the grocery store, and find things soon after putting them down.

Most of the research on spatial memory has been done on the animal kingdom, particularly rodents. However, there have been recent studies that have tested spatial memory in humans and determined that the same principles found in spatial memory in rodents also apply to humans.

What Is Spatial Memory?

Spatial memory allows you to remember where things are. It is the memory that you use to remember where things are located both on a short-term and long-term basis.Any time you are remembering the location of an object or place, you are using spatial memory.

Examples Of Spatial Memory

There are many examples of spatial memory that you might use throughout the day. You use spatial memory even when you do not think about it. While some spatial memory is declarative, meaning you must actively recall it, other spatial memory is automatic and does not require specific attention to recall.

Some common examples of spatial memory include:

  • Remembering where your car keys are several minutes or hours after placing them there

  • Remembering where the furniture is in your home

  • Remembering where the light switch is in the bathroom

  • Remembering where the grocery store is and how to get there from your home

  • Remembering your route to work

Spatial memory is even more important for people with eyesight problems. If you wear glasses or contacts and do not have them on when you get up in the middle of the night to go into the bathroom, it is spatial memory that allows you to remember where things are in the room so that you don't bump into anything or trip and fall.

The Brain And Spatial Memory

The primary part of the brain involved in spatial memory is the hippocampus. Studies in both rodents and humans have shown that the hippocampus is vital to the operation of spatial memory. If there is any damage to the hippocampus, spatial memory suffers considerably.

In addition, studies have found that the brain's right hemisphere is utilized the most in spatial memory tasks. This contrasts with verbal memory tasks, which primarily use the left side of the brain. The right side of the brain as well as parts of the left side, were used in subjects that performed spatial memory tasks that involved both spatial and verbal memory.

The parietal lobe also plays a role in spatial memory. When you perform a task such as remembering where objects are in relation to the body, you are using the parietal lobe. This is also the area of the brain responsible for actions such as reaching and grasping. Without spatial memory working in conjunction with the parietal lobe, you would not be able to reliably grasp something that was in front of you.

How Spatial Memory Works

Spatial memory works differently depending on the type of information you are trying to recall. Spatial memory can be utilized in working memory, also called short-term memory, or in long-term memory. When you see something with your eyes, that information is transferred to iconic memory, a form of ultra-short-term sensory memory.

From the sensory memory, that information is passed on to the short-term memory, or working memory. This memory usually lasts less than an hour, with an average of twenty minutes for most people. 

When you place something down and forget where you put it five minutes later, this is a failure of spatial working memory. When you forget the route to the grocery store that you have taken several times, this is a lapse in long-term spatial memory. Both types of memory are reliant on the hippocampus.

Spatial Working Memory

Spatial working memory is short-term memory. It is this working memory that we use when we are trying to remember the location of an object soon after placing it down or seeing it. If the lights suddenly go out and you are left in darkness, spatial working memory is what allows you to remember where things are that you can no longer see.

Long-Term Spatial Memory

Long-term spatial memory includes memories of things that you have repeatedly seen or routes that you have taken in the past, which your brain encodes into long-term memory. When you are going to the grocery store for the second time after moving to a new town, it is your long-term memory that allows you to remember the route. Long-term spatial memory also allows you to remember where an event took place.

Spatial Memory Loss

Spatial memory loss is common in several conditions, although it is not frequently reported as the first sign of memory loss. The biggest reason it is not reported more frequently is that people do not realize that spatial memory is its own category of memory. They only know that they are having trouble remembering where things are, and therefore report losses to short-term and long-term memory. However, because of its dependency on the hippocampus, spatial memory is one of the first types of memory to see deficits in many disorders.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is the most common reason behind memory loss. Alzheimer's first attacks the hippocampus. Because the hippocampus is so severely impacted early in the disease, spatial memory loss is one of the first signs of the disorder. However, it is not until other types of memory loss are apparent that most people seek help. The earlier Alzheimer's is detected, the more available treatment options. For this reason, it is important to seek help right away if you find yourself having trouble with spatial memory.

Experiencing Memory Problems?

Brain Injury

A traumatic brain injury can be responsible for the loss of spatial memory. If the right hemisphere of the brain is severely damaged it can cause impairments in spatial memory. In addition, if the hippocampus is damaged, spatial memory can suffer. Sometimes the loss of spatial memory due to brain injury is temporary. As the brain heals, spatial memory may begin to come back.

Stroke

A stroke can also cause the loss of spatial memory. A stroke may impact the hippocampus, causing problems with spatial and other types of memory. However, if the stroke primarily affects the brain's right hemisphere, it is more likely that spatial memory will be affected. Some stroke patients recover somewhat over time, and it is possible that some spatial memory abilities may return with therapy.

Aging

The process of aging has long been known to cause memory loss over time. This is considered natural memory loss, and there really isn't anything to be done about it in most cases. The same is true of spatial memory. As we age, our ability to recall where things are located declines. You may find that as you get older, you have a harder time remembering where you last saw your phone, your car keys, or your wallet.

New studies have come to light, however, that may be able to reverse the effects of aging on spatial memory. The research was done with rodents and has yet to be tested on humans. The idea is that the immune system weakens with age and contributes to memory loss. The researchers found that when they boosted immune systems in the mice, they regained their spatial memory abilities.

Stress

Other studies on mice have shown that stress may cause permanent deficits in spatial memory. Mice were put under restraint stress for six hours a day for 21 days. These rodents were then unable to perform spatial memory tasks. Over time without stress, their spatial memory abilities did not improve. This suggests that putting the brain under stress, including emotional duress, could influence spatial memory loss.

Vestibular Loss

Vestibular loss refers to loss of balance related to the inner ear. Studies have shown that vestibular loss creates atrophy in the hippocampus and causes problems with spatial memory. The research was done with a fairly small sample size, and more research is needed to see if there is indeed a correlation between vestibular loss and the loss of spatial memory.

Getting Help With Spatial Memory Loss

If you have noticed that you are frequently forgetting where things are located, or if you are getting lost driving or walking routes that you have followed frequently in the past, you may be suffering from spatial memory loss. It is a good idea to get help as soon as you notice that you are having memory problems.

You should contact a psychologist right away when you notice that you have deficits in spatial memory, or any other type of memory. Certain conditions such as Alzheimer's and dementia have additional treatment options when the disease is caught early. A psychologist can administer memory tests and help determine if a diagnosis and treatment are needed.

Also, if stress is contributing to or exacerbating memory loss, a licensed therapist can help you identify ways to reduce stress. Studies have shown that psychotherapy is an effective treatment for stress, which may potentially help with memory problems. And with services like BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist with the click of a button. Not only has online therapy been proven as effective as in-person therapy, but it is also more convenient. 

Takeaway

Spatial memory is an important component of short and long-term memory that we use on a daily basis. If it is lost, it can dramatically affect one’s life. However, there may be ways to prevent or treat a decline in spatial memory. 

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