- Remembering things is a process that involves three stages that are very similar to how your computer stores memory.
- The first is the encoding stage when the brain takes in whatever is going on around it.
- Encoding done, then, just like in the computer, consolidation, or storage takes place when the equivalent of the brain ‘save button’ is pressed.
- The final stage is retrieval, which remembering is all about.
Is forgetfulness a sign of failing memory? How can one improve on this?
The simple answer to your question is yes. As to how one could improve failing memory, that is a whole new ballgame and we must first get to understand how normal memory works, and hence get to understand what could go wrong.
First, a story.
A man wrote a letter to a woman and professed his love for her and she wrote back and reciprocated her love for him. When he did not call her after a few days as he had promised, the woman was naturally upset and decided to call him to find out why he had not kept his promise. She was puzzled by his response, because, he seemed to have forgotten the letter, and more importantly, the fact that she existed at all. Naturally, she was most upset and promised herself never to allow her heart to be stolen by such a callous man.
Several months later, he called her and to her shock, he wanted to meet her. Told that he must be an idiot to think that she would be willing to meet him, he expressed surprise at the turn of events and asked the lady to kindly forgive him if he had in any way wronged her. In passing, he mentioned that he had just come from hospital where doctors had removed a huge clot from his brain.
That got the lady to retract her earlier position and agreed to meet the man, if only to console a fellow human being. It soon transpired that the man had a head injury soon after he wrote to her, and all memory of his promises had been all but wiped out! Upon treatment of the condition (Subdural Hematoma), his memory had come back to normal. He still loved her. As they say, the rest is history and ‘the couple lived happily ever after’.
This romantic story is meant to make the point that memory is a rather complex process that can be interfered with by a variety of events. In the case of this man it was a bang on his head by a car door as he was getting out in a hurry. In the case of another it was the fact that he had consumed large quantities of alcohol at a Christmas party and could not remember any of the girls and promises he had made. His memory had been ‘dissolved’ in the alcohol! In yet another case, memory had been interfered with by sleeping pills taken the night before. This was indeed a serious case where a woman accused a new boyfriend of rape because she could not remember consenting to the happenings of the night before. She had even forgotten taking a sleeping pill after taking a few glasses of wine at dinner.
My grandfather was a great man but he used to upset me a great deal over the smallest of things. He simply did not remember what class I was in whenever we met, yet his memory for the war was excellent. He had two types of memory. One short-term the other long-term. He had lost his short-term memory and retained the long-term component. Whether we met say, after a week or several months, during our conversation he would nearly always want to know ‘what class are you in now’ years later, it became clear that this phenomenon was the normal process of ageing and just as he could not run as fast as he could when he went to the First World War, his brain, heart, kidneys and all other organs of his body were becoming older and less efficient in the process that is called, growing old.
Remembering things is a process that involves three stages that are very similar to how your computer stores memory.
The first is the encoding stage when the brain takes in whatever is going on around it. Encoding done, then, just like in the computer, consolidation, or storage takes place when the equivalent of the brain ‘save button’ is pressed. The final stage is retrieval, which remembering is all about. If this process is interfered with at any of these stages, then like the man with the bleeding in the head or the person who drank too much or the girl who took the sleeping pill, problems can and do arise. Time is another enemy of memory as it naturally tends to erode older memories as new ones come into play. Like your hard disk in the computer, your brain seems to delete old memories for new ones and some are completely forgotten while others are distorted.
Maintainance of good mental and physical health is some of the most obvious ways of maintaining good memory function.