Memory Consolidation: Psychology, Definition, And Examples

Updated January 4, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

To understand the concept of memory consolidation, it’s helpful to think of a specific memory as like a muscle. Exercising it with repetition can strengthen it over time, and we can better retain it within our system of memories. 

For example- perhaps you spent hours and hours in school studying and using the Pythagorean theorem. Doing so allows you to exercise your brain a great deal and store the formula in your long-term memory. This is called memory consolidation

On the other hand, you may have placed your keys down on the kitchen table when you got home an hour ago. It was an automatic gesture, so you may not have thought about it. In doing so, your brain has not had a proper "workout” to process and retain the memory. Therefore, you’re more likely to forget where you left your keys.  

In memory consolidation psychology, memory and the process of memory consolidation relies on a healthy body and brain. There are many things that affect our mind’s ability to retain information, including age, drug and alcohol abuse, certain medications, diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and more. 

Concerned About Your Ability To Remember?

What Are Memories?

Memory is defined as the process of receiving information, storing the details, then recalling that information later, all within our mind. Memory involves many portions of the brain, but the hippocampus, found within the brain's temporal lobes, is primarily responsible for emotions and memory. 

When we take in new information, that information travels through the brain with a system of electric and chemical signals involving neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters. Electric or chemical signals pass from neuron to neuron over the synapse, sometimes requiring the aid of neurotransmitters. The pattern of neurons and synapses that this information travels through can train the neurons to be reactivated in similar patterns.

This pattern of reactivation is a memory. So rather than memory being an organized system with separate compartments in the brain, it is instead an ever-changing system of neural patterns and pathways in which information travels across many regions of the brain.

In memory consolidation, recalling the same piece of information repeatedly trains the neurons to act together more efficiently and rapidly. As this repetition continues, the neurons learn to fire together in the original pattern, and thus the information is more readily available in the form of memory.

Age-Related Memory Loss

As we age, it is natural for memory function to diminish gradually. Knowing that our memories are a series of constantly changing neural patterns, it is easy to understand why no memories are permanent, even long-term and stored memories. Memory consolidation psychology shows that there is a multitude of possible reasons that our memory can decrease as we age, but the two most common causes include reduced blood flow to the brain and deterioration of the hippocampus.

Other cases of memory decline can occur on a much more rapid and severe scale from certain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that progresses and irreversibly destroys the patient's mental functioning, including memory. Alzheimer's disease typically leads to dementia in the later stages of the progression. Dementia is a general term used to describe symptoms that alter mental functioning significantly. Dementia presents as a symptom of many severe cognitive disorders.

Mental Illness, Substance Abuse, And Memory

Our memory is such a vital part of our personality and daily functioning that it can often be affected in those with mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Those experiencing depression often report feeling as if their mind is foggy or clouded. When the brain is preoccupied with rumination and feelings of worry and anxiety, it can impair our ability to form memories and learn new information. 

Schizophrenia is another example of a mental illness commonly associated with decreased memory function. One 1999 meta-analysis “documented significant memory impairment in schizophrenia. The impairment was stable, wide-ranging, and not substantially affected by potential moderating factors such as severity of psychopathology and duration of illness.”

Substance abuse can also cause significant interferences with memory consolidation and recall. Alcohol is well known for its potential memory interference, as it can lead to partial memory loss or even complete blackouts if consumed in large amounts. Research is still being conducted on the ways that alcohol interferes with memory, but it is believed to be, in part, due to the disruptions that alcohol creates in the hippocampus. It is also shown that alcohol use interferes with neurons and their ability to consistently respond to signals from other cells. Benzodiazepines, which are often prescribed for acute anxiety, also have similar impacts on memory consolidation. This effect is often amplified in those who abuse benzodiazepines.

Concerned About Your Ability To Remember?

Improving Memory Consolidation

According to memory consolidation psychology, the brain needs stimulation. Therefore, it is often said that learning new skills effectively cultivates good overall brain health. For example, learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language are excellent ways to exercise your brain and give it the stimulation it needs to stay sharp. 

Physical exercise is another proven way to increase memory and boost mental functioning. The University of British Columbia conducted a study showing that consistent aerobic exercise seemingly increased hippocampus size in older women who showed signs of possible cognitive impairment. Also, chronic inflammation has been linked to memory loss and cognitive decline later in life, and regular physical activity is linked to reducing inflammation in the body. 

The quality of sleep we get is also associated with brain functioning and memory. Getting enough sleep helps us process, consolidate, and store new information as memories in the brain. Memory loss or difficulty remembering things is also often associated with sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, and other sleep-related disorders such as narcolepsy. 


Memory is a continually changing, ever-shifting series of neural patterns within the brain that allows us to recall previously learned information. While there are many causes of memory impairment, healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and challenging ourselves mentally, can often help keep our minds sharper and our memory healthier longer.

Experiencing problems with processing and retaining memory can be unsettling and, in some cases, even frightening. If you are having issues with memory loss or other concerns about cognitive function, it’s vital to speak to a doctor immediately. A neurologist can help you isolate the potential causes of your symptoms and begin treatment if necessary.

Suppose you discover that your memory issues could be related to a mental health disorder such as depressive disorder or chronic anxiety. In that case, it’s important to reach out to a professional who can help. A psychologist can use methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to isolate the root cause of your challenges and provide you with tools to cultivate a healthier state of mind and, in turn, a better capacity for memory. 

The rise of online therapy for treating disorders such as anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders has removed many of the common barriers to therapy that keep people from getting help. For instance, online therapy is more easily accessible, more flexible, and often more affordable than in-person therapy. 

Online platforms like BetterHelp match patients with mental health professionals with experience in a wide variety of specialized care. You can speak with a counselor via phone, text, video chat, or online messaging to get started on your journey to better mental health. 

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