Do you ever wonder why you can remember your best friend’s phone number from childhood but sometimes forget the reason why you walked into a room? The answer lies in the types of memories we access on a regular basis.
Our brains are hardwired to retain small bits of information for a short period of time, usually up to 20 or 30 seconds. It is the skill that allows us to remember a phone number long enough to dial it (although we are losing this skill with the scroll and touch feature on modern cell phones). It is also the skill that helps us remember items for a grocery list until we can write them down. While scientists continue to debate whether our short-term memories are limited by the number of items we are called to remember or the time we have to remember them, it is clear that short-term memories are stored in a different location of the brain than long-term memories.
There is some debate in the scientific community whether “working memory” is a subset of short-term memory or a type all on its own. Still, working memory refers to our ability to store information until we have to use it. For instance, if you are adding double digits in your head, working memory allows you to remember the “ones” solution long enough to get to the full answer. It also helps us remember multiple instructions and recall how what we are doing now relates to what comes next. When you walk into a room and forget your purpose in going there, there is a hiccup in your working memory.
Long-term memory is the ultimate storage solution in your brain. Some scientists believe that once something enters your long-term memory, it is always there. The only challenge is in recalling it. There are a variety of types of long-term memories. Procedural memories, like riding a bike, brushing your teeth, or tying your shoes, are motor skills you learn how to do. Semantic memory helps you store information about the world around you. It is what helps you recall the state capitals or poems you learned in school. Episodic memory stores events, the things that happen to you over the course of your life.
Memory Loss & Aging
The unfortunate reality of aging is that your ability to create and recall information changes as your brain gets older. Even in the absence of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological conditions, your brain chemistry, structure and function changes as you age. Changes in any part of your long-term memory could be the sign of a more serious underlying condition. Fortunately, age-related memory changes are usually seen in your short-term and working memory functions. You may find that you need to write things down, that you occasionally forget to complete a task or that you tend to lose your keys more often than you did in your 20’s. Fortunately, these types of memory are responsive to exercise, regardless of your age.
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