Memory Dysfunction

Memory is a group of neurons (nerve cells) having a familiar conversation. The brain simmers with activity, and different groups of neurons, responsible for different thoughts or perceptions, drift in and out of action. Memory is the reactivation of a specific group of neurons, formed from persistent changes in the strength of connections between neurons. Simply stated, memory is the process of acquiring, storing, retaining, and later retrieving information. Memory is an integral part of human cognition, since it allows individuals to recall and draw upon past events to frame their understanding of and behavior within the present.

There are four types of memory, working memory, sensory memory, short-term memory (including word retrieval), and long-term memory (including episodic memory). Word retrieval issues refer to a person knowing and understanding a particular word, but who have difficulty retrieving it and using it in their speech, as a linguistic representation. Episodic long-term memory issues refer to the inability to recall a conscious memory of a previous experience, with their context, in terms of time, place, associated emotions, etc.

Memory can easily be affected by brain injury because there are several structures within the brain that are involved in memory formation. Injury to any of these parts can impair memory performance. Remembering involves the stages of taking in information, storing it adequately and retrieving it when needed. So, injury to parts of the brain responsible for these stages can lead to various memory issues.

Memory traits vs memory disorder

I come from a forgetful family line, and distinguishing between genetic traits and memory disorder is important. Psychologists have found a connection between such everyday lapses and the DRD2 gene. Those who have a certain variant of this gene are more easily distracted and experience a significantly higher incidence of lapses due to a lack of attention. However, memory loss caused by brain damage is a more serious issue. Brain injury often causes short-term and long-term memory loss, and memory is the slowest part of the conscious mind to recover after a brain injury. It can sometimes take weeks or months before brain injury survivors are able to routinely store and/or recall memories.

Our experience

Both Sarah and I have struggled with word retrieval, which is a short-term memory issue. Again, word retrieval issues refer to a person knowing and understanding a particular word, but have difficulty recalling or retrieving it and using it in their speech. This is similar to saying “it is on the tip of my tongue”. In my case, and after many years combating this problem internally, I have been able to create a work around. I am quick with words as they say, and it took me sometime to learn how to switch my verbal expression, in order to use alternative words in my conversation. As for Sarah, word-retrieval was identified as an issue on her first neuro-psych assessment, and so, she has been self aware. With Sarah’s advanced studies, she has been able to find other work-arounds, some of those are outlined in the Intentional Memory Skills section below.

Sarah has also struggled with losing old knowledge, a long-term memory issue. This problem was gradual, but was obvious at the beginning of her college experience, when certain math and english skills were lost. Sarah has been an advanced student since grade school, especially in math, science, and writing, and she was in the gifted programs since elementary school. This was a very difficult problem for her, and has created many setbacks and struggles, especially given that she was in the Honors and Scholars program. Sarah is very independent, and was keen on pushing through, and rejected my advice of using any of the learning disability programs that were available to her. All I could do was listen and support. But she eventually figured out some things to help. For example, she decided to tutor lower level math, and continued advancing in tutoring levels, until she reached her goals. She also switched majors from pre-med to biopsychology in college, so she did not need as much of those subjects. Incidentally, her decision to switch away from science was not about the subject itself, but was the consequences of her brain function shift, from one side to the other, or left to right, as her brain injury was predominately on the left side. Please see “Left to Right ” under Episodes.

Sarah also struggled with learning new knowledge. This was very hard for her, and us parents too. Sarah has always been a straight A student, with many academic performance awards over the years. Learning was never hard for Sarah, but her brain hemorrhage and the repeated gamma-life radiation surgeries on the left side of the brain dealt multiple blows to her retention and academic performance. But she is a trooper, and kept working harder while pushing through. In the end, receiving less than an A grade was unacceptable, and she continued to develop skills that have helped her deal with the issues of new knowledge retention. This includes intentional memory skills, like talking and writing while studying. She insisted that having a TV on in the background helped. I could not understand this one, given that I can not study with noise or distraction in the background. Perhaps we are on opposite ends of the ADD spectrum, but this also shows how different we all are, and also how each brain injury is unique.


There are several things that brain injury survivors can do, as their best effort, to aid their brain and memory. Here are some of the most popular and effective ones:

Intentional memory skills –

Association, which is defined in psychology as the ability to learn and remember using the relationship between unrelated items. This would include, for example, remembering the name of someone by the aroma of a particular perfume. Vivid images, which is simply the intentional formation of any mental pictures of what you want to remember. Repetition, which is a well-documented trigger for memory formation: the more times something is repeated, the better it is remembered. Write it down, which helps memory by forcing patients to slow down and be more intentional. Learning new skills: as we learn a new skill, we are forming a stronger memory.

Music –

Memory can stick around, when there are emotions attached to them. Listening to and performing music reactivates areas of the brain associated with memory, reasoning, speech, emotion, and reward. Two recent studies—one in the United States and the other in Japan—found that music doesn’t just help us retrieve stored memories, it also helps us lay down new ones.

Exercise –

Skills that require using muscles and repetition can be locked into memory for a lifetime. Non-strenuous exercise is one of the best activities you can do to improve short-term memory after brain injury. According to several studies, aerobic exercise actually stimulates the growth of new brain cells and improves memory and cognition.

Diet –

Some studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil and fish may be beneficial after brain injury. In addition, there are other food choices that have shown a great value for the brain, including blueberries, fatty fish, leafy greens, nuts, coffee and tea.

Nature –

Researchers found that a walk through the park can significantly improve memory and cognitive function. In fact, one study found that by spending one hour outdoors interacting with nature, you could improve your memory function by an astounding 20%.