The ability to store and retrieve information is vital to our ability to function.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
What causes temporary memory loss and forgetfulness?
Temporary memory loss and forgetfulness may be caused by a variety of factors, some of which are common and not necessarily indicative of a serious underlying condition. Here are some common causes of temporary memory loss and forgetfulness:
- Stress and Anxiety: High levels of stress and anxiety can interfere with cognitive function, including memory. Stress hormones can affect the brain's ability to form and retrieve memories.
- Lack of Sleep: Sleep may be needed for memory consolidation. Insufficient or poor-quality sleep may lead to memory problems and forgetfulness.
- Fatigue: Physical or mental fatigue may impair cognitive function, making it difficult to focus and remember information.
- Medications: Certain medications, especially those that affect the central nervous system, may have side effects that impact memory temporarily. Be sure to consult with a healthcare provider if you suspect medication-related memory issues.
- Dehydration: Dehydration can affect brain function and lead to temporary memory lapses.
- Lack of Mental Stimulation: A lack of mental stimulation or cognitive engagement can result in memory difficulties. Regular mental exercise and stimulation are important for maintaining memory function.
- Information Overload: When exposed to too much information at once, the brain may struggle to retain all the details, leading to forgetfulness.
- Multitasking: Trying to juggle multiple tasks at the same time can overload cognitive resources, making it easier to forget things.
- Age-Related Factors: Mild forgetfulness is common as people age. It is often called age-related cognitive decline or "senior moments." These memory lapses are typically temporary and do not indicate a severe cognitive disorder like dementia.
- Underlying Medical Conditions: In some cases, temporary memory issues can be associated with underlying medical conditions, such as thyroid disorders, infections, or metabolic abnormalities. These conditions should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
- Emotional Factors: Strong emotions, such as fear or excitement, can impact memory formation and retrieval.
Is losing sense of time a symptom of dementia?
Losing a sense of time or experiencing disorientation with regard to time may be a symptom of dementia in some individuals, particularly in its later stages. A loss of time and memory may make everyday tasks more challenging as an individual may forget appointments, tasks, or meetings. Dementia is a broad term that encompasses a range of cognitive impairments, and different types of dementia may present with varying symptoms. However, temporal disorientation may occur in many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia.
Does ADHD affect memory?
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may affect various aspects of memory. Memory is a complex cognitive process, and individuals with ADHD may experience challenges in different memory domains. Here are some ways in which ADHD can impact memory:
- Working Memory: Working memory is the system responsible for temporarily holding and manipulating information needed for cognitive tasks, such as problem-solving and decision-making. Individuals with ADHD may have deficits in working memory, which can lead to difficulties in holding and managing information, such as forgetting instructions, losing track of tasks, or struggling to follow multi-step directions.
- Short-Term Memory: Short-term memory refers to the ability to temporarily store and recall information over a brief period. ADHD may affect short-term memory, making it harder for individuals to remember information like phone numbers, names, or items on a to-do list.
- Long-Term Memory: Long-term memory is responsible for storing information for an extended period. While ADHD primarily impacts attention and executive functions, which may indirectly affect the encoding and retrieval of information from long-term memory, it does not typically result in significant deficits in long-term memory storage itself.
- Procedural Memory: Procedural memory involves remembering how to perform specific tasks or skills, such as riding a bike or typing. ADHD may have varying effects on procedural memory, with some individuals experiencing challenges in skill acquisition and retention.
- Episodic Memory: Episodic memory is the ability to recall specific personal experiences and events. ADHD may affect episodic memory, particularly in situations where inattention or impulsivity during the event interferes with the encoding of the memory.
What are the 10 early warning signs of dementia?
Dementia is a progressive condition that can manifest with a variety of cognitive and behavioral symptoms. While the specific signs and their severity can vary among individuals and types of dementia, here are 10 common early warning signs of dementia:
- Memory Loss: A mild cognitive impairment due to dementia may cause forgetfulness that disrupts daily life and affects tasks like remembering appointments, recent events, or important dates.
- Difficulty with Planning and Problem-Solving: Struggles with planning, organization, and solving problems, such as following recipes or managing finances.
- Confusion About Time or Place: Individuals with dementia may become disoriented about the time of day, date, or location, which can lead to getting lost in familiar places.
- Trouble with Familiar Tasks: Difficulty completing routine tasks, such as dressing or cooking, that were once familiar and easy may occur in individuals with dementia.
- Changes in Language: Problems with language, such as difficulty finding the right words, following or joining a conversation, or repeating oneself to friends and family members.
- Poor Judgment: Exhibiting poor judgment or decision-making, such as giving away money to scams or neglecting personal hygiene.
- Misplacing Items: Frequently misplacing items, like keys or eyeglasses, and struggling to retrace steps to find them.
- Withdrawal from Social Activities: Withdrawing from social activities, work, or hobbies that were previously enjoyed due to a loss of interest or difficulty engaging in them.
- Mood and Personality Changes: Experiencing changes in mood or personality, such as increased irritability, mood swings, or becoming anxious, fearful, or suspicious.
- Difficulty with Visual Perception: Problems with visual perception that may result in difficulties recognizing faces, judging distances, or reading.
What is brain fog?
"Brain fog" is a term used to describe a set of cognitive symptoms that can include confusion, forgetfulness, mental clarity issues, and a lack of mental sharpness. It's characterized by a feeling of mental haziness or fogginess, as if your thinking is not as clear or sharp as usual. Brain fog may be temporary or chronic and may vary in intensity.
Can stress cause temporary amnesia?
Stress may lead to a phenomenon often referred to as "stress-induced amnesia" or "temporary amnesia." Individuals may forget how to do simple tasks or may ask the same questions multiple times. While this is not true amnesia in the clinical sense, it can cause significant memory disruptions. High levels of stress trigger the body's "fight or flight" response, which can flood the bloodstream with stress hormones like cortisol. These hormones can affect the brain's functioning, particularly in the hippocampus, a region associated with memory and learning.
During episodes of acute stress or extreme anxiety, individuals may experience memory lapses, forgetfulness, sudden memory loss, or difficulty recalling details of recent events. This is often temporary and typically resolves once the stressor is removed, and the body returns to a state of relaxation. However, severe or chronic stress can lead to persistent memory problems and may increase the risk of long-term cognitive issues if not managed effectively. It's essential to address stress and its underlying causes to mitigate its impact on memory and overall mental well-being.
Why am I losing my concept of time?
Losing your concept of time or experiencing difficulties with time perception can have various underlying causes, and it's important to consider your specific circumstances and any associated symptoms. Some common causes of memory loss, reasons for changes in time perception, or difficulties with time awareness include:
- Stress and Anxiety: High levels of stress and anxiety may lead to a sense of time distortion, making it feel like time is passing more slowly or quickly than usual. These may be triggered by traumatic events or routine daily stress.
- Lack of Routine: A lack of daily routines or structured activities can sometimes make it challenging to keep track of time and create a sense of disorientation.
- Sleep Disruptions: Poor sleep quality or sleep disorders due to stress, sleep apnea, or other reasons, may affect your perception of time and lead to difficulties with time awareness or difficulty concentrating.
- Medical Conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as a head injury, neurological disorders, brain injuries, brain tumors, or brain surgery can impact time perception and other thinking skills.
- Medications: Some medications may have side effects that affect cognitive function and time awareness.
- Psychological Factors: Mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder, can influence how you perceive time.
- Hormonal Changes: Hormonal fluctuations, such as those during menopause or thyroid disorders, can affect cognitive function, including time awareness.
What age does dementia start?
Dementia is not a specific age-related condition, and it can affect the brain and nerve cells or individuals at various stages of life. However, the risk of developing dementia increases with age, and it is more commonly diagnosed in older adults. The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, typically occurs in older age, with the majority of cases being diagnosed after the age of 65. This is often referred to as late-onset Alzheimer's disease. A doctor may run blood tests to determine if an individual has Alzheimer’s disease.
Can dementia be cured?
According to the National Institute on Aging, there is no cure for most types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a progressive and degenerative condition that affects the brain, leading to a decline in cognitive and functional abilities. While there are treatments and interventions that can help manage the symptoms and slow down the progression of some forms of dementia, there is no known cure that can completely reverse or eliminate the condition.
Do I have ADHD or am I just forgetful?
Experiencing forgetfulness does not necessarily indicate that you have Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Forgetfulness is a common experience and can be influenced by various factors, including stress, sleep deprivation, lifestyle, and age. It's important to differentiate between occasional forgetfulness and the persistent symptoms associated with ADHD.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that may be characterized by a pattern of symptoms that include:
- Inattention: Difficulty sustaining attention, making careless mistakes, and struggling with organization and time management.
- Hyperactivity: Restlessness, fidgeting, and difficulty sitting still, which is more commonly seen in children with ADHD.
- Impulsivity: Acting without thinking, interrupting others, and difficulty waiting one's turn.
ADHD is diagnosed based on a thorough assessment conducted by a healthcare professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who considers the presence and severity of these symptoms and rules out other possible causes of the symptoms.
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