“Memory is intricately tied to identity; we are a product of our own experiences. What we perceive is shaped by what we have perceived before; what we learn is bootstrapped on past learning.” ~ Alexandra Horowitz, Professor of Psychology, Barnard College
Memory is an integral part of our human existence. It forms our histories, is the foundation for learning, and allows us to actively engage in life and learning. In many ways it makes up who we are as individuals.
Memory is also complex. It’s not merely the act of remembering where we left our keys, or recalling a series of dates in history class. Memory is multifaceted: it spans different regions of our brains and is constant. At every moment of our lives we are extracting meaning, making decisions, planning future actions. Memory plays an enormous role in these moments.
And yet in our brains there is no single memory region. There is no ‘memory bank’ housing everything we need to hold onto for later use.
In this blog, we take a new look at memory. We’ll explore how different brain regions are responsible for different types of memory, and how their functioning leads to struggles and strengths. We’ll also examine how memory can be improved through neuroplasticity and cognitive programming.
Whether you have a child struggling in school, you feel something is holding you back in your professional life, or you see how a stronger memory could benefit everyone within your organization, this blog introduces a different way of looking at memory - and how to enhance it.
What are the Symptoms of Memory Issues?
Memory issues can manifest in many ways and they can also be misunderstood as personality flaws, inattention, even misbehaviour. Let’s consider some examples:
- forgetting a homework assignment
- neglecting to mention a close friend’s new hair cut or pair of glasses
- studying for weeks but performing poorly on an exam
- forgetting the way to the restaurant you’ve been to before
Why are these examples so wide spanning? Why do some appear to be completely outside of memory and remembering?
Because they involve different and discrete processes in our brain. If any of these areas are underperforming, this creates obstacles to our functioning and performance in very specific ways.
Examining the Underlying Cognitive Functions That Lead to Memory Issues
Memory is nuanced and complex. Certain areas of the brain have been associated with various aspects of memory - hippocampus, temporal lobe, prefrontal cortex to name a few. While it would be convenient to pinpoint one area of the brain to memory, the reality is far more intricate:
As Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, Founder of the Arrowsmith Program, explains in her book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: “There is no one type of memory. There is a memory for faces, one for objects, one for written motor plans, one for steps in a process, one for phonemic pronunciation, one for spatial maps and patterns, one for body movements, and there is semantic memory for concepts, to name a few. Each type depends on the functioning of different cortical areas within its neural networks.”
You can learn more about cognitive function in our blogs:
Certainly there are some functions specialized in retaining information - think of a mental Post-it note. But nearly all cognitive processes have some aspect of memory embedded within their job. Let’s look at five areas of life to see what cognitive functions are involved:
Attention and Understanding: our prefrontal lobes in our left and right hemispheres are critical in controlling our attention and focus. When either or both of these functions are weak, we fail to pick up on essential stimuli. We don’t remember what we don’t notice. We also don’t remember what we don’t understand. If the Symbol Relations cognitive function is secure, we make sense of new material, and therefore remember it. Consider the difference between merely memorizing material or deeply understanding it – which is more valuable for retention?
Navigation: Spatial Reasoning is the map inside our heads. If under-functioning, navigating the ‘real world’ can be challenging. Getting lost and forgetting the way can be common with this issue (think having no sense of where North or South is, or forgetting how to get from A to B when navigating to your grandparent’s house).
Budgeting: Quantification Sense is the brain’s memory for numbers. A weakness here means a struggle to learn math facts, to remember phone numbers, to do mental calculations efficiently. Whether budgeting big or small projects - from allowance saving to household finances to huge fiscal projects, our memory for number and number manipulation is essential (think dividing the bill at a restaurant).
Writing and Reading: our brain is designed to remember the look of a word. Our Symbol Recognition determines whether we need multiple presentations of a word before it is secure in memory. Further to these skills, are the motor plans in our hand as we learn to write and type, and for our eyes when we scan a word. When the Motor Symbol Sequencing function is weak, we don’t remember or develop these motor memories, meaning these skills remain effortful (think of the student who has great ideas but groans when instructed to write them down).
Communication: we learn to communicate by remembering or encoding sequences of language. We remember – seemingly instinctively – to say ‘I went home’ and not ‘Me goed home’. When memory of language patterns is insecure due to a weak Predicative Speech function, communication is affected (think of the individual who speaks curtly – they may do so because they lack the memory of certain grammatical rules and sequences). A different cognitive function remembers the sounds of a word. If we can’t recall certain sound combinations due to a weak Broca’s Speech Pronunciation, vocabulary development is impacted, as is our memory (think of mispronouncing a friend’s surname name, despite knowing them for years).
In short - it's not always a question or remembering or forgetting! You can read about the other cognitive functions that impact memory in different ways here: https://www.arrowsmith.ca/lifelong-learning/memory-retention-difficulties
Are you interested in discovering your unique cognitive profile? Take our 30-minute cognitive profile questionnaire to start the journey of gaining a better understanding of your brain’s unique strengths and weaknesses through a cognitive lens.
How Memory Issues Can Be Addressed, and Memory Capabilities Improved, Through a Neuroplastic Approach to Cognitive Programming
Do you want the good news? Every single cognitive function listed above can be strengthened, allowing us to overcome the challenges and issues that may be holding us back in our education, work and social lives.
Despite the nuances and complexities of memory, we know that we can harness the power of neuroplasticity to strengthen the cognitive functions in our brain…and, as a result, address certain memory difficulties.
That’s because neuroplasticity tells us one important thing about our brain. It is malleable across a person’s lifespan, meaning it has a powerful capacity for change. Neuroplasticity gives us all the ability to shape and enhance our brains across the span of our lives - and that means we can improve our memory.
By harnessing the power of neuroplasticity in specifically-designed cognitive programs, Arrowsmith is able to help individuals overcome learning disabilities and improve their physical, economic and social well-being - all by strengthening areas of weaknesses within the brain.
When it comes to memory, we know that by strengthening the cognitive functions responsible for different areas of memory we can dramatically improve a person’s ability to succeed at school, work and in life in general.
Interested in learning more about strengthening your child’s or your brain to overcome challenges, or how to bring this approach to your own organization? Get in touch with our team today.
August 23, 2023