How Spatial Memory Works And Is Lost
Updated December 11, 2018
Reviewer Tanya Harell
Spatial memory is not a type of memory that you hear about very often. This is a small subset of memory that operates both in short-term and long-term memory. It is responsible for you being able 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 available about spatial memory has been done on the animal kingdom, particularly rodents such as mice, rats and gerbils. However, there have been more recent studies that have tested spatial memory in humans and determined definitively that the same principles found in spatial memory in rodents also applies to humans.
What Is Spatial Memory?
Spatial memory is the type of memory that 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. Some of the spatial memory tasks used in research include being able to remember where an object was located in an array of objects. 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 any given day. You use spatial memory even when you do not necessarily think about it. While some spatial memory is declarative, meaning you have to 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 who have problems with their eyesight. 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 that is involved in spatial memory is the hippocampus. Studies in both rodents and humans have shown that the hippocampus is vital to operation of spatial memory. If there is any damage to the hippocampus, spatial memory suffers considerably.
In addition, studies have found that the right hemisphere of the brain is utilized the most in spatial memory tasks. This contrasts to verbal memory tasks in that verbal memory uses primarily 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 spatial memory task such as remembering where objects are in relation to the body, you are using the parietal lobe of the brain. This is also the area of the brain that is responsible for actions such as reaching and grasping. Without the 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 in different ways 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. From there, if the brain recognizes that this information is important, it is transferred to the long-term memory, where you will be able to access it frequently.
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 quite common in a number of conditions, although it is not frequently reported as the first sign of memory loss. The biggest reason it has not been 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, spatial memory, because of its dependency on the hippocampus, is one of the first types of memory to see deficits in many disorders.
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 out help. The earlier Alzheimer's is detected, the more treatment options there are available. It is important for this reason that if you suddenly find yourself having trouble with spatial memory that you seek help right away.
A traumatic brain injury can be responsible for the loss of spatial memory. If the right hemisphere of the brain is severely damaged this can cause severe impairments in spatial memory. In addition, if the hippocampus is damaged at all in the brain injury, spatial memory can greatly suffer. Sometimes the loss of spatial memory due to brain injury is temporary. As the brain heals, so too does the spatial memory begin to come back.
A stroke can also be a cause of 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 right hemisphere of the brain, it is more likely that spatial memory will be affected. Some stroke patients do recover somewhat over time, and it is possible that some spatial memory abilities may return with therapy.
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 behind the research is that the immune system weakens with age and is related to the memory loss. The researchers found that when they introduced boosted immune systems in the mice, they regained their spatial memory abilities.
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 have an effect on spatial memory 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 is able to administer memory tests and help determine if a diagnosis and treatment are needed.