Memory refers to our ability to acquire, transform, store, retain and retrieve information. It is a process that takes in information from our environment and experiences. Understanding what is memory can help us use our past experiences for better decisions and actions in the future.
What Is Memory?
In general terms, memory is our ability to recollect and remember learned information from the past in our minds. Such learned information can include experiences, habits, skills, impressions and facts. Our memories are a record of our thoughts, sensations and experiences which adds to the learning process. It aids learning 1 by allowing us to store and recall information which we learn during the course of our lives. Memories empower us to become who we are by influencing our emotions 2 and personality 3. It plays a crucial role in our daily lives by letting us remember small details, like where we left our smartphone, to pleasant past events, like our 10th birthday celebration. Memory adds value to the human experience and helps build and maintain our sense of self-identity 4.
Researchers 5 define memory as “the faculty of encoding, storing, and retrieving information.” It is our ability to utilize past learnings and experience to regulate & adapt our current and future thoughts, behaviors and actions. Our memories can also help us to build and nourish relationships and connections. It is also strongly linked to different cognitive abilities 6, such as reasoning, learning, attention, decision-making, and socialization.
Understanding Human Memory
Cognitive psychology 7 is concerned with the study of human memory and its types. The term memory is derived from the Latin word “memor” or “memoria” meaning remembering or mindfulness. Our memories can store, preserve and retrieve information, experienced or learned. However, this information may not be stored in a properly organized manner in our brain. Rather, these are jumbled and scattered through our brains and are present more like a jigsaw puzzle
Moreover, this process is often flawed as at times we tend to remember things very differently from what actually happened or even forget crucial information. We can also have distorted or false memories by remembering events that never occurred 8. Such “memory loss” can range from minor and harmless forgetfulness 9 to major memory damage.
Furthermore, certain conditions and disorders can also affect our memory, such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment etc. Even when healthy, we do not necessarily remember everything we have learned or experienced in our life. However, memory can store both short-term and long-term records of our learnings and experiences as different types of memories have different purposes and uses.
Apart from information, like learning words or languages, memory may also involve skills that we learn, such as swimming or using a computer. Certain types of memory can even allow us to relive specific past events. This memory of personal events 10 and episodes is known as autobiographical memory as it involves information about our self-identity. When we learn what memory is, we realize that it is a sign of good mental health. Regardless, memory is a complex physical and psychological process 11 and much of it remains to be understood.
Read More About Alzheimer’s Disease Here
How Does A Memory Work?
When learning about what is memory – we need to understand how memory actually works. Our memories are formed when different sets of neurons get reactivated. “Memories exist in different forms and rely on distinct neural systems,” explains a 2014 study 12. However, scientists are yet to fully understand how memories are made. We are still trying to understand how our brain stores, organizes, searches for and retrieves memories.
Still, it is believed that the memory process includes the following processes:
This process involves the learning of information. It refers to how we take in information, process, understand and alter it to store it better.
This process refers to where, how, how long and how much information is stored in our memory. Initially, the encoded information is stored as short-term memory, which can be later stored as long-term memory, if needed.
Retrieval or recalling is how we access the encoded information stored in our memories. Short-term memory and long-term memory are typically retrieved in different ways.
Memory formation may also involve a dual-process 13 where routine, unconscious thoughts interconnect with problem-based, conscious thoughts.
Types Of Memory
While figuring out what is memory, we need to take a closer look at human memory and its types. Although different theories propose different models, most experts consider the following major types of memory –
1. Short-term Memory
It is the temporary ability 14 of our mind to store in an active state. This memory is limited, lasting for 18–30 seconds. It cannot be mentally manipulated and is used for remembering:
- The name of a new acquaintance
- Where we parked our car
- What we had for dinner, etc.
2. Working Memory
A 2018 study 15 defines working memory as “a multicomponent system that manipulates information storage for greater and more complex cognitive [use]” in the future. It is like short-term memory, except that it allows us to manipulate its information 16. It is used in:
- Skills like reasoning, decision-making, mental math, etc.
- Reading a book
- Calculating grocery bills, etc.
3. Long-term Memory
Long-term memory is the memory that holds knowledge indefinitely. It is of two types.
1. Explicit long-term memory
Explicit long-term memory is the memory 17 that helps us with the conscious and intentional recalling of experiences and information. It is gained through socialization, gradual learning, conversations, etc. It can be of three types:
A. Sensory memory
Sensory memory is the automatic memorization of just-experienced sensory stimuli like touch, smell, sight, sound, etc. It is used for:
- Recognizing the sound of an instrument
- Remembering skin sensations
- Remembering the different sections in a much-visited grocery store, etc.
B. Episodic memory
Episodic memory comprises memories of events 18 that happened during our lifetime. It can be recent or years old. It is used for recalling certain episodes, like:
- Childhood memories
- Certain family functions
- Events like a graduation or the first day of a job
C. Semantic memory
Semantic memory is the long-term general knowledge that we gain in our lifetime. It is gained at school, by reading books, or through conversations. It can be both personal and general. For example, it can be used for:
- Stating universal facts, like the sky is blue
- Remembering the names of capital cities around the world
- Recalling our life’s details like birthdate, hometown, etc.
2. Implicit long-term memory
Implicit long-term memory is the memory that we gain and use unconsciously. It affects our thoughts, behavior, and skills.
It is of three types.
A. Emotional memory
Emotional memory is the memory that holds past experiences of the emotions we have felt. It can be recalled by emotional reactions.
B. Procedural memory
Procedural memory is the unconscious, long-term memory that helps us perform certain tasks. It is gained through procedural learning and not from previous experiences. It is used in tasks like:
- Playing an instrument
- Tying a shoe
- Riding a bicycle, etc.
Priming is the unconscious, long-term memory of past experiences that influence our behavior. It can be learned, culturally taught, or gleaned from established practices. It is used in instances like:
- Researchers training participants for an experiment
- A smoker craving a cigarette after meals
- Recalling collocations, such as “bread and butter”, “skin and bones”, “doctor and nurse”, etc.
Memory And Mental Health
Understanding how memory affects our psychological well-being is an important part of understanding what memory is. It is believed that a good and active human memory is the most inevitable marker 19 of mental health. In contrast, a poor memory is both a result and a symptom of bad mental health 20. One 2019 study 21 shows that “affective disorders, such as depression and anxiety, have been associated with impaired cognition, dementia, and accelerated cognitive decline in late adulthood.”
Unpleasant memories of negative experiences cause a lot of pain and psychosocial problems, such as depression 22, anxiety, etc. A 2009 study 23 states that “the presence of stressful life events over a period of up to 3 years is associated with accelerated cognitive decline in older adults with compromised cognition.” Negative circumstances force people to embrace unhealthy coping habits, like smoking, drinking, and drug use, which can further affect their memory.
Whenever one’s memory is weakened or diseased, their identity, self-esteem, confidence, and social relationships greatly suffer 24.
Read More About Anxiety Here
What Causes Memory Loss And Forgetfulness
While understanding what is memory, we must know that forgetfulness is a feature usually used by the brain to declutter itself. However, memory loss can be caused by a number of factors, such as:
Cognitive abilities usually decline with age 25, which can affect our memories in later life 26. Elderly people 27 often find it difficult to retain new information, learn something new, or make new memories. Normal age-related memory loss 28 is common and these do not disrupt everyday life.
Read More About Aging And Mental Health Here
2. Injuries And Disorders
Physical injuries in the brain, such as a stroke or hemorrhage are causes of memory loss. Forgetfulness also results from physical disorders caused by:
- Poor nutrition 29
- Vitamin deficiencies 30
- Hormonal imbalances 31
- Bacterial and viral infections 32 (Coronavirus 33, HIV 34, Ebola virus 35 etc.)
3. Mental Disorders
People suffering from mental conditions 36, like chronic stress, anxiety, depression 37, schizophrenia or mood disorders 38 usually experience memory loss. Life events such as pregnancy 39 or the loss of a loved one can also affect memory. Sometimes, people suppress memories of traumatic experiences, causing a blackout.
Read More Mood Disorders Here
4. Memory Dysfunction
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Alziehmer’s disease (AD) 44
- Parkinson’s disease (PD) 45
- Dementia 46
- Hyperthymestic syndrome 47
- Korsakoff syndrome (KS) 48
Read More About Dementia Here
Certain medications or a combination of medicines 49 can cause forgetfulness or amnesia. According to a 2016 study 50, some commonly prescribed drugs 51 (such as sedative, hypnotic, antiseizure, antidepressant drugs, etc.) dampen key areas of the brain and lead to brain fog and poor long-term memory.
6. Substance Use
Substance abuse 52 affects brain regions 53 associated with reasoning, learning, attention, and memory. Studies 54 link chronic memory loss to the excessive use of alcohol 55, narcotics, tobacco, etc.
7. Genetic Disorders
Treatment For Memory Loss
If you understand what is memory, you can easily identify someone who is forgetting things chronically or someone who is affected by memory disorders. Consider the following steps to help them with medical aid 61:
- Get them tested 62 by using the memory assessments 63 available in general and memory clinics 64 for both adults and children.
- Seek medical help as memory loss often accompanies mental and physical disorders. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent memory decline.
- Encourage them to seek psychotherapies 65, cognitive therapies 66 and memory support interventions.
- Encourage and support them during the memory loss treatment. Although the healing process can be slow, therapy 67 and medication 68, along with care and support, can help treat serious memory problems.
How To Improve Memory
The key to maintaining memory is to gain a deep understanding of what is memory and proven ways to improve memory to avoid forgetfulness. To improve your memory, consider the following techniques:
1. Organize Your Mind
Organize your thoughts and your everyday tasks. Categorize your activities and jot down what you need to remember or use journals, organizers, planners, sticky notes, etc.
2. Maintain A Healthy Diet
Eat a balanced diet 69 with vegetables, vitamins 70, and fish oil supplements. Studies 71 show that fish oil supplements improve working memory in elderly people. Avoid sugar, cola, excessive alcohol, and fatty foods 72 in your daily food habits. You can also use herbal remedies 73 with omega-3 fatty acids and rich antioxidants to increase memory.
3. Maintain A Proper Sleep Schedule
Studies 74 associate sleep deficiency with poor mental performance. The best way to improve your memory is to make sure you get enough sleep. Health experts 75 recommend adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep 76 each night for optimal health.
4. Be Physically Active
The natural ways to improve your memory often include physical activities, such as exercise 77, yoga 78, meditation, etc. Regular exercise can improve mindfulness 79 and memory. A 2022 study 80 recommends exercise 81 and yoga 82 to elderly people to lessen their vulnerability to memory decline.
5. Play Brain Games
Spend your leisure time 83 by playing brain games to improve your memory, like chess, chinese checkers, crossword puzzles, sudoku, word games, etc. Spending time with loved ones can reduce chances 84 of memory decline as well.
In understanding “what is memory”, it should be noted that the memory process is complex, flawed and constantly changing. Hence, we often suffer from minor forgetfulness. A good memory is a sign of sound mental health. So make sure to improve your memory as memory loss can seriously affect your quality of life.
Memory At A Glance
- Memory refers to the brain’s ability to store and recall data.
- Understanding “what is memory?” can help us learn from the past and make better decisions.
- The memory process is a complex physiological and psychological one.
- It is also a complex and flawed process that makes us forget sometimes.
- A good memory is a marker of good mental health and vice versa.
- Try a good diet, adequate sleep, exercise, brain games, and other proven ways to improve memory.
- Memory loss treatment should be availed for chronic forgetfulness in diseases like dementia.
Frequently Answered Questions (FAQs)
1. Can depression cause memory loss?
Depression causes memory loss. It causes attention deficiency, which may lead to people not remembering details about events or creating long-term memories. Depressed people mostly suffer from poor short-term memory and prospective memory.
2. What causes memory loss?
The causes of memory loss can be physical injuries to the brain, mental disorders (like stress, anxiety, and depression), addictions (like alcoholism and substance abuse), infections, hormonal imbalances, and memory disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
3. What diseases affect your memory?
Both physical and mental diseases affect memory. Physical diseases caused by viral and bacterial infections, hormonal imbalances, brain injury, and poor nutrition affect memory performance. Mental disorders like stress disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, Alzheimer’s diseases, Parkinson’s diseases, etc. negatively affect memory.
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