The Different Forms Of Memory Impairment And Distortion

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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The ability to store and retrieve information is vital to our ability to function.

Memory is a complex system that helps us learn, connect with each other, survive, and grow. Because of this complexity, and the overall fallibility of memory, there are several different ways it can be altered and impaired.

We can forget information, misremember past events, and otherwise distort our memories. This article discusses different types and causes of memory impairment and distortion, as well as what you can do if you are struggling with your memory.  

Causes of memory impairment/distortion

Memory impairment can arise due to a variety of reasons. Mental and physical health conditions are some of the most common contributors to memory loss. Memory impairment is a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and several other dementia-producing conditions. Research has also found a link between post-traumatic stress disorder and memory loss. Additionally, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder are thought to be associated with memory impairment.  

Another common cause of memory impairment is traumatic brain injury, which can disrupt functioning of certain brain regions. For example, damage to the hippocampus—which is a central processing structure for learning and memory—can interfere with long-term memory storage and recall; and damage to the amygdala, which is involved with storing, retrieving, and processing, can cause problems with the memory of emotional events, changes in emotional response, and trouble with decision-making. Brain injuries are also thought to lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory loss may happen as a result of a tumor or infection in the brain. It can also be the result of the inability of blood or oxygen to reach the brain. If you believe you’re experiencing memory loss, a healthcare professional can provide you with an examination and help you determine whether further testing and treatment are necessary. 

Additionally, because our brains are susceptible to many different types of cognitive distortions, our memories are often altered or lost. We may forget certain occurrences, remember events in a different way than they happened, or attribute memories to the wrong sources.  

Types of memory impairment/distortion

Cognitive functioning is important to your mental health

Given the complexity of memory and the various causes that can bring about cognitive impairment, deficits and changes in memory can manifest in several ways. The following are some of the most common types of memory impairment and distortion. 


According to psychologist Daniel Schacter, there are seven primary types of memory distortions, which are further categorized into either errors of omission or commission. Transience is one of the errors of omission, which involve forgetting. Transience refers simply to the loss of memory as time passes. For example, though you may have once memorized the names of each US president, you might now only remember half of them. Aging can precipitate this form of memory impairment, as can brain damage. 


Our brains often take memories we’ve stored and alter them with new information. For example, you may remember a friend being in one of your classes in elementary school despite not meeting them until high school. Theories about this change in memory suggest that every time you remember something, it gets rewritten in your brain. In fact, we can use this memory process to help people overcome traumatic memories. 

Dissociative amnesia

This refers to the loss of autobiographical memory, or memory related to oneself. In this case, the rest of an individual’s memory may be intact, but they might have a gap that corresponds to a certain time period. Dissociative amnesia can be caused by a traumatic event or damage to the limbic system. 


This memory error occurs when you attribute a specific memory to the wrong source or remember it in a way different from the actual event. An example of this memory error is remembering that you rode a horse during a birthday party when that actually happened during a vacation the same year. There are many reasons why a memory gap like this can happen, including experiencing intense emotions at the time of the event or hearing different versions of an occurrence from other people and conflating them with your memories. 


Have you ever tried to remember something that you know, but you can’t for some reason? This phenomenon is known as blocking. Memory blocking is the failure to retrieve information that you’ve stored. It can happen when our ability to memory link—a primary way we store and recall information—becomes weaker and hinders our recollection. Memory blocking is common and can happen at any age, but it can become more frequent as a person gets older.


Have you ever gotten to a concert and realized you left the tickets at home? Or simply forgotten about a project that was due for school? These are examples of absent-mindedness, which refers to failures to store or retrieve memories. Absent-mindedness can occur when we are focusing on other things, experiencing stress or fatigue, or simply being inattentive. 


False memories

Are your memories as accurate as you'd like to believe? According to the theory of false memories, also known as confabulation, your memory may not be accurate or even authentic at all. There are several causes for this form of memory distortion. Sometimes, others can implant what seems like a memory by suggestion. False memories can also be the result of certain types of brain damage. False memories have also been linked to PTSD and depression

Memory bias

Our current beliefs can affect our ability to remember past events accurately. When we recall a memory, we sometimes distort it based on what we now know and how we feel. For example, if you’re currently sad, you may be prone to remembering a past situation more negatively than it occurred. 

Imagination inflation

This memory distortion happens when a person becomes more likely to remember an event after they’ve pictured it happening, even if it never did. For example, in one study, researchers gauged participants’ convictions that certain events had occurred to them during childhood. They then had the individuals visualize some of those incidents occurring and again gauged their beliefs. After participants had imagined the incidents, researchers found that their beliefs about the occurrence of the events were strengthened. 

Time-slice errors

Time-slice errors occur when a person recalls an actual event but not the correct one for the period they were asked to remember. For example, if a classmate asks you what your professor covered on a particular day, and you describe their lecture from a different day, you’ve committed a time-slice error. 

Cognitive functioning is important to your mental health

Addressing memory 

There are numerous proven methods of boosting different types of memory. They can range from completing brain exercises to improve working memory to listening to music to enhance autobiographical memory. As a general approach, many experts recommend implementing lifestyle changes to improve overall memory function. These can include limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption, exercising regularly, and eating a diet that promotes cognitive health. 

Projects or hobbies that keep your brain engaged can also help you boost your memory. Consider learning a new skill, such as welding, or studying a foreign language. Games like crossword puzzles, sudoku, and chess are all thought to improve memory as well.  

How online therapy can help

If you struggle with cognitive function due to gaps in your memory, inaccurate memories, or similar concerns, seeking the guidance and support of a therapist can help. A therapist can help you address the emotional challenges that may accompany memory loss, develop coping strategies for symptoms of comorbid mental health disorders, and find resources for improving your memory. 

Research suggests that online therapy can promote memory improvement after impairment has occurred. In a study of 46 individuals who experienced memory loss after a stroke, researchers concluded that online therapy led to improvements in memory function that were sustained for six months post-treatment. The results of this trial can be added to those of an increasingly large number of studies pointing to the efficacy of online therapy when addressing a range of mental and cognitive health concerns. 

Online therapy is a convenient and flexible form of mental health care for those who are experiencing memory loss. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can easily schedule appointments and receive frequent reminders of upcoming sessions, which can be helpful if you’re experiencing memory struggles. Your therapist can also connect you with useful resources, such as at-home exercises geared toward helping you improve your memory on your own time.  


Memory involves complex processes in the brain and is prone to many different errors, including misattribution, absent-mindedness, and bias. Because your memories are likely precious to you, it can be important to know how they may be affected and how you can retain them. If you’ve experienced one of the above forms of memory impairment or a similar concern, consider getting matched with a licensed therapist online. With the right support, you can preserve your memories and continue caring for your cognitive and mental health.
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