“Memories are like stones, time and distance erode them like acid” Ugo Betti
“Like memory it has disappeared, naked and lonely with my fears” Manic Street Preachers
My mother has dementia. She will forget where she is and why she is there. She will forget who she has spoken to and what the conversation was about. It is as if her memory is wiped clean every few so often and then she has to refresh. This leads her to feel frequently lost, confused and worried. This flood of information that has to replace her forgetting must feel overwhelming. It is especially sad because as long as I can remember my mother has had the sharpest of minds. She remembered and she worked and she thought. And now, in a process that feels too quick and too cruel, these abilities are eroding. Washing away with the tides of time and with each passing moment. Her long term memory isn’t too bad, which is a bit of a saving grace but it does not mean that it is not impacted. Sooner or later, the dementia will invade, erode, overtake her long term memories as well.
Why do I mention this?
In the Journal of Neurodevelopmental disorders one article strongly links autism with problems with Short Term or Working Memory. It states that “deficits in working memory are central to many theories… and are generally linked to frontal lobe disfunction.” Ok, fair enough. But what does any of this mean? Human memory can be broken down into two distinctive areas or processes. Each process performs a particular function. The first part is Short Term Memory or as it is also known, Working Memory. This is the information that the brain needs for a short amount of time. Details like directions, phone numbers and the like. When I was in college it was believed that a person could store up to ten separate pieces of information. This varies between people and the complexity of the information that is needed to be stored. Information that is not moved to the Long Term Memory is forgotten and will need to be relearnt at a later date.
The second part of the memory is the Long Term Memory. This can store unlimited information for an unlimited amount of time. The strength of the Long Term Memory depends on the electrical connections between synapses and the amount of time that information is recalled. It is why frequently revising information over a period of time is more effective than cramming the night before. Both the Short Term and the Long Term memory is located in the frontal lobe of the brain. This area is quite important as it also controls behaviour and attitudes. A person who suffers significant frontal lobe injuries can suffer a change in personality or frequents swings in their behaviour.
The study also found that a person with autism will have significant impairment in their Short Term Memory. Obviously, it is nowhere near as bad as dementia but it does illustrate the importance of the Short Term Memory.
I have often begrudged my poor Short Term memory and this has been frequently mentioned when people describe me as “feather brained” or “scatty”. When I was younger I would read a phone number upstairs only to have forgotten it once I had reached the telephone. I find it extremely difficult to remember names and faces. This has led to people feeling that I was not paying them enough attention or that I was flat out rude. Which I would argue that I am not. At least not intentionally. I would often forget to perform tasks that were needed for the various office jobs and this could lead to problems with invoices and processes that effect other people. None of this is intentional but it was a problem.
In my everyday life I forget things. Simple things such as taking out the bins, picking up something from the shops and what uniform to put on my son. I forget. It is not that I do not care or that I am thinking of other things but, the information does not stick. In a lot of cases my mind does feel like it is a pinball bouncing off the flippers, all flashing lights and sounds. However, often it is a case that it goes in one ear and straight out of the other.
My Long Term Memory is pretty decent. I can recall quite well stories I have read in terms of plots and characters and random little tit bits of information. I can remember small details about things that I have learnt or done.
Another factor that can impact Short Term Memory retention is stress. When a person is stressed it can be hard for them to organise their thoughts. A million factors and consequences and problems and solutions overwhelm their memory. I have been under an increasing amount of stress over the years and I believe that this has exacerbated my propensity to Short Term Memory problems.
What can a person do to counter these problems? They are several things that I do – with the help of others – to counter this. At work I make To Do lists and work my way through them. I ask people to remind me of things and I explain that I find learning names difficult. When shopping I ask my wife to send me lists of what is needed. I ask her to help me with lists for what needs to be done around the house. Over the summer holidays I ask for things that I can do, such as sorting out a room in the house or the garden. This gives me some element of focus. It does not necessarily mean that everything gets done all the time, on time but it helps. One of the most effective things she has done to help with my memory is to buy me a daily pill box so that I know, for certain, if I have taken my medication or not. Again, sometimes I forget but it is there to say: you missed yesterday morning, dickhead.
Small things can help build a routine and the routine can become very helpful.