Focus on the Family

Memory Problems

by Linda Sasser

"Memory is the thing you forget with." - journalist Alexander Chase

Can you draw a penny, front and back, including correct placement of the eight critical features? If not, is this an example of forgetting?

Not being able to recall something (a person's name, a fact, an event) may be attributed to a variety of causes. One of the most common is that the brain never encoded the information in the first place. Something heard, seen or thought about is processed in short-term memory, but is not automatically encoded in long-term memory. This explains why, when we are introduced to someone, we often can't recall his or her name minutes later. And it also accounts for the fact that, though we see and handle pennies daily, we may not have encoded their features.


Memories are first created in the hippocampus, which stores them temporarily before permanently assigning them storage sites throughout the brain. This can take minutes or hours. Nerve connections must be formed and strengthened through use. If the connections break down due to lack of use, we forget. Most things are "forgotten" because of weak encoding; in other words, the memory trace was not permanent enough to remain for a long period.

Some things are forgotten because of interference from similar information, as with repetitive experiences. For example, you might have difficulty recalling what you ate for dinner last Tuesday, especially if you eat dinner in similar circumstances almost every night. The more similar memories are in meaning and content, the more likely they are to interfere with each other. However, if last Tuesday was your birthday and you ate at a special restaurant, the memory would be distinct and not likely to be forgotten.

Automated Actions

When we do things automatically, usually out of routine or habit, we don't have to pay conscious attention to what we are doing. As a result, we often don't remember the actions we just carried out. Common examples include: pressing the button to activate the garage door, taking our daily vitamins, putting sugar in our coffee. We can't remember because we were not consciously attending to these tasks as we performed them. (Caution: this lack of attention when performing automatic behaviors may contribute to absent-mindedness!)

Have you ever walked into a room and realized that you'd forgotten why you went in there? Forgetting can result from a change in context. What we learn in one environment is often more difficult to retrieve in another. This might explain why, when you're at the mall and run into people you've met at church, their names elude you.

We're usually better able to recall generalities about information or an event than the verbatim or specifics. We tend to fill in the gaps with "reasonable" facts or details. Over time, our memory changes as a result of this unconscious reconstruction of the event based on subsequent experiences or information. So it's not so surprising that you and your siblings often have different recollections of the same event from your past!

Appropriate Cues

Similar to being unable to locate a book in the library without knowing its call number, we are sometimes unable to access information from long-term memory because we don't have the appropriate retrieval cue. Just as a fragrance or melody can bring to mind an experience from your distant past, an appropriate stimulus is needed to access any particular memory. You may have difficulty recalling an actor's name without being cued by the name of the movie in which they starred.

Weak encoding, interference, automaticity, context change and insufficient or absent retrieval cues all contribute to the phenomenon we call forgetting. By making ourselves more aware of these contributors to lapses in memory, we might be able to decrease the frequency of having to say, "I forgot!"

Plagued by Senior Moments?

So you just put the ice cream in the vegetable keeper. Don't panic; it's probably just your brain downshifting to middle age.

by Lynne Thompson

Do you ever catch yourself stopped in mid-sentence — the point you were trying to make suddenly snatched away by a mysterious brain glitch? Ever looked down at the empty glass in your hand, wondering, did I or did I not just take my pills? How about exiting the mall and not having a clue where you parked the car?

If so, don't panic. Absent-mindedness and a general slowdown in mental processing often occur naturally with the aging process. Your mature nervous system (like an older-model computer) may take a little longer to retrieve information than it did when you were younger.

But here's the good news: if you think you're having a few too many "senior moments," there are some things you can do to bring your mental modem back up to speed.

Educating Your Memory

The National Institutes of Health recently conducted a study on "How Training Improves Cognitive Abilities of Older Adults." The five-week session, titled ACTIVE, taught the participants strategies for remembering word lists and sequences of items, text material and details of stories. Results showed significant improvement in cognitive abilities that continued two years after the training.

"The findings were powerful and very specific," says Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., and Associate Director for the Behavioral and Social Research Program at the National Institute on Aging (NIA). "I think we can build on these results to see how training ultimately might be applied to tasks that older people do everyday, such as using medication or handling finances."

Memory Facts

Memory is the ability to remember something that has been learned or experienced, and refers to the brain's ability to store information.

Without it, learning would be impossible. If your brain couldn't recall the past, you would be unable to learn anything new. All your experiences would be lost as soon as they ended, and each new situation would be unfamiliar.

Memory is divided into three types:

Sensory memory holds information for only a second or two, giving your eyes, ears, and other senses time to process the information. This information quickly disappears unless you make an effort to retain it.

Short-term memory contains what you actively think about at any particular time. It can hold a fact for as long as you think about it, like repeating a phone number until you dial it.

Long-term memory stores facts, ideas and experiences after you stop thinking about them, and includes a huge amount of information, some of which lasts a lifetime.

Experts believe that by the end of our lives, our long-term memories have stored hundreds of times the information contained in a comprehensive encyclopedia.

Calisthenics for Your Brain

What's in a Name? (Lots!)

Here are some great tips for helping you jog your memory when meeting someone for the second time.

by Linda Sasser

Do you have difficulty recalling people's names? If your answer is "yes, then you are in good company.

Most of us find name recall daunting, and for good reason. First, there are a multitude of names we need to remember. Second, names are arbitrary — there is nothing about a person that cues you as to his or her name. Have you every noticed that it's easy to recognize faces of people we've met before, but much more difficult to recall their names? Faces are visual, but names are verbal and our brains can much more easily recognize pictures than recall words.

Pay Attention

The most probable reason for difficulty recalling names is simply that we don't pay enough attention. Your mind may be momentarily distracted by any number of things. If attention is not selectively given to the name when it is said, it will not enter short-term memory. So the first step for improving name recall: Be intentional about paying attention when the name is spoken.

If the situation allows, repeat the name silently to yourself and/or use it out loud in conversation. If the name is an unfamiliar or unusual one, you might ask for its spelling and visualize the name in writing. Or, as the name is said, visualize a tag (on the person) bearing the name in big, bold letters.

Connect the Name

Use association to connect the name with something or someone familiar to you. The name might remind you of a relative, neighbor or celebrity who has the same name. Or perhaps it is identical or similar to the name of an object, occupation or product for which you can easily form an image, such as Nichols (nickels) or Wolf, Baker or Carpenter and Campbell (soup) or Ford (car).

Put Your Imagination to Work

Use your imagination to convert names into memorable images. For example, you can visualize a collie for Collins, man cow ski for Mankowski and rose-belt for Roosevelt. For better recall of first names, you might decide ahead of time what image to associate with a name. Julie can be converted to jewel, Margaret to margarine, Dennis to tennis and Kevin to caveman.

Tips for Remembering Names

The last step is to engage in elaborative encoding. Focus on the person's appearance, observing any outstanding features. Then visualize your image for the name interacting in some way with one of the person's features. For example, a gentleman with a shock of white hair may make you think of Mt. Everest, which helps you recall that his name is Everett. You might link the name Kubes to a man's square-shaped face and remember Mr. Swindle by his handlebar moustache (swindler). Perhaps Julie's eyes sparkle like jewels, or Bill is very tall and long-legged.

Be Fun and Effective

A strategy that's both fun and effective is to think of an adjective describing the person that begins with the same letter as his or her first or last name. For example, if Alice has fluffy, golden hair framing her face like a halo, you can remember her as Angel Alice. A boy named Matt who sports one of those spiky hairdos can be recalled as Messy-haired Matt. An animated woman might be recalled as Vivacious Vickie, and a statuesque, perfectly groomed woman can be remembered as Debutante Deb. Alternatively, the adjective could rhyme with the name, as in Curly Shirley if she has curly hair, or Slim Jim if he is of slender build.

For some names, you'll want to create an image of an action, such as using magic markers to draw a beard on Mark's clean-shaven face, or hanging little red shoes from Dorothy's earlobes as earrings (ruby shoes from the Wizard of Oz.

So, what's in a name? Ask yourself that question if you are serious about improving your ability to recall names. When you meet someone, pay attention to his or her name and appearance, make associations and use elaboration to create images that link the name with the person. This causes your brain to engage in deeper processing of the name, so even if you aren't able to come up with a perfect association or image, the elaborative encoding will increase the probability of your remembering the name!

Excavating Memories

"Picking the brains" of older generations can yield incalculable insights into generational patterns; what makes us who we are today in the present time.

by Roberta Rand Caponey

If you have elderly relatives, you have a window with a view onto history — the opportunity to learn firsthand details of life in a "gone-by" era. On a personal level, they are your key to solving the mystery of who you were named after, a chance to match personalities with those ornate, but fading signatures in the family Bible.

Consider the changes our world has witnessed in the past 100 years — in technology, arts & entertainment, religion, cultural values and family relationships. Our aging and elderly loved ones have experienced it all: from the Great Depression to world wars and the evolution of modern media. Our parents have experienced life in the 20th and 21st centuries and grew up with people who lived and thrived in the 19th. "Picking the brains" of older generations can yield incalculable insights into generational patterns; what makes us who we are today in the present time.

Yet, too often, we let time slip away, squandering the valuable resource of our elders' memories until it's too late and the past is lost to us forever.

Asking Good Questions

If you have a favorite elderly relative, don't wait. Arrange a specific time to sit down for a one-on-one. Choose a time when your loved one is rested and distractions are at a minimum. Have a list of questions ready, along with family photos, letters and other visual cues. Be sure your recording device is properly set up so that both questions and answers are picked up on the microphone. Some good "start-up" questions are:

More Helpful Tips

One of the first things a news reporter is taught is to ask "who-what-when-where-why" questions. The same goes for those who want to glean detailed information about family history.

When trying to determine exact dates of births, deaths and other important events, try to tie in related memories — a world event, catastrophes, a particular job or season. Try to corroborate facts by talking to other relatives who recall the same time period.

Of all the senses, the sense of smell is considered the most effective in eliciting memory. For the elderly person who needs coaching to remember, bring items like a favorite old perfume, some fresh-baked cookies, pine needles, a Big Chief writing tablet (the smell of newsprint), vanilla or sweet-smelling soap. Invite the subject of your interview to smell the items, then ask, "What does this smell remind you of?"

Good questions are open-ended and allow for changes in direction. Keep yes/no questions to a minimum. You'll find the more questions you ask, the more latent memories will rise to the surface — don't be surprised if your loved one starts to recall the smallest details: the smell of gingerbread baking, the hankie Grandma always had tucked in her sleeve, the glass candy dish that sat on mantle. If so, go with it! As family "sleuth," be open to where the interview takes you. It's the day-to-day intimate details that make history come alive for younger generations – and create a bridge of common experience.

Finally, don't put too much emphasis on dates. Though it's nice to know your Grandfather arrived at Ellis Island on a particular date, it's much more interesting to know the personal facts that don't make it into history books: what people felt, life lessons they've learned, what caused them pain, what gave them joy. In the quest for answers about a family heritage, the "whens" are not nearly as fascinating as the "whys" and "hows."

Next Steps/Related Information

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