"Use your head!" You probably hear people say that all the time, and with good reason. That head of yours houses the most useful contraption of all time: your brain! Your brain is a finely tuned machine that's even smarter than the world's coolest computer. In fact, the brain is kind of like a super-computer.
It has to be - your brain's responsibilities are endless. Learning, talking, moving, feeling, understanding - these are just a few of your brain's daily duties. One of its biggest jobs is remembering, or memory.
What Is Memory?
When an event happens, when you learn something, or when you meet someone, your brain determines whether that information needs to be saved. If your brain judges the information important, it places it in your memory "files." The part of your brain responsible for processing memory is the hippocampus (say: hip-oh-cam-pus). Long-term information is thought to be stored away in different areas of the cerebral cortex, or the "gray matter" of the brain - the largest, outermost part of the brain.
According to Dr. Gregory O' Shanick, the national medical director for the Brain Injury Association, the brain really is like a computer. Your short-term memory is like a computer's RAM (random-access memory), the part needed to store recent information and to retrieve long-stored information. The long-stored stuff is in your long-term memory, which is like a computer's hard drive. Like a computer, you use this RAM to access and use the stored-away information locked in your brain. It will stay there, safe and sound, until you need it again.
So when do you need to call on your memory? Every day! There are some things you don't even have to try to remember - like what day of the week it is or what you had for breakfast. Remembering these little things is your brain's way of staying alert.
Do you want to remember an event so you can tell a story next summer at camp? Want to remember a fact so you can ace your history test? Maybe you want to memorize the lyrics to that new song you heard on the radio. And you definitely want to remember where you left your in-line skates. You rely on memory for all of these things.
What Can Go Wrong With Memory?
As wonderful as memory is, it isn't always perfect. When your brain is hurt, your memory will sometimes respond by shutting down, making it difficult to recall that old information.
It's totally normal to occasionally forget the name of somebody you just met or where you put your shoes or not to remember much from when you were a baby. It's also typical for people to forget more things as they grow older, sometimes as the result of a disease that affects memory in older people, such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Often, people who have had a stroke (when blood supply to the brain is stopped or when a blood vessel bursts) also have trouble remembering things.
Some people have trouble making new memories or recalling specific pieces of information. Have you ever had something you wanted to say, and you couldn't quite remember it all, but it was on the tip of your tongue? When you were close to remembering a fact or details but just couldn't quite get it out or put it together? This is pretty common and everyone has these moments.
A pattern of forgetting, however, can be something else. Doctors have a name for an inability to recall or remember things that happened a short time ago: amnesia (say: am-nee-zha). You probably think you know what amnesia is, but it's not as dramatic as a "soap-opera amnesia," when a person wakes up and suddenly can't remember who she is until a meaningful kiss or wild turn of events magically triggers her memory. People rarely forget who they are. And the recovery time for your brain doesn't happen in an instant - it usually takes time.
What Causes a Memory Problem?
The most common cause of amnesia is a traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI is caused by a severe blow to the head. Traumatic brain injuries can happen in a lot of ways and can be severe enough to cause a coma (prolonged unconsciousness), or a person may just be stunned without even being knocked out (like in some concussions).
TBIs typically happen to people who get into car accidents while not wearing their seat belts. Always remember to buckle up and use a booster seat if you need one. Accidents while bike riding, skiing, skateboarding, using your scooter, or playing sports without a helmet are also a leading cause of TBI. Always wear your helmet and protective gear!
In fact, in National Football League games and National Hockey League games, players are actually questioned after an injury (asked what happened, who and where they are, and what team they are playing, for example) before they are allowed back on the field or the ice. Not knowing these things could be the first sign that the person's brain has been injured.
Abusing drugs or alcohol can hurt the brain and cause a person to develop memory problems. A hallucinogen (like LSD or PCP, which is also known as "angel dust") is one such dangerous drug. It alters certain chemicals in the brain that have to do with the emotional part of memories and makes those memories harder to recall, says Dr. O'Shanick.
Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa or bulimia, may also cause memory problems because they disrupt the body's special chemicals that help keep the brain functioning normally.
What Are the Symptoms of a Real Memory Problem?
Sometimes kids get distracted (like when they have a big test or soccer tryouts) and they may forget things. This is normal and usually no cause for panic. The most mild forms of memory disturbance have to do with not being able to remember certain words you want to say or not being able to remember something you want to do. But since these things can happen to everyone once in a while, only a pattern of forgetting (especially after a head injury) indicates there may be a problem.
The most obvious symptom of a memory problem is an inability to remember important things for a long length of time - more than days, weeks, or even months. In a person who has a brain injury, the length of time that person has memory loss generally goes hand in hand with how severely the brain is damaged, says Dr. O'Shanick. Some people may forget just the moments immediately before and after the injury, which is not unusual with a concussion. Sometimes, these memories come back. More significant problems with memory may make it hard to remember what happened just weeks or days ago, and it becomes even harder to learn and remember new things.
What Will the Doctor Do?
If a person has been hit in the head, she should see a doctor. A doctor will test the person's ability to recall events, names, or places by asking lots of questions. In the case of a brain injury, a doctor will also want to take a picture of the patient's brain and skull using something called a CT scan. (A CT scan is a special kind of camera that uses a frequency of light invisible to the human eye to take pictures of your insides from the outside. It's totally painless.) If memory loss is determined, the doctor will prescribe the necessary treatment, which typically includes healing the injured brain and help relearning forgotten stuff.
If the memory problem is due to a person using drugs or alcohol, a person usually needs to quit in order to get their memory back. It may take a while and there may be medical treatment involved in getting the person to stop using drugs and get better.
If a person has an eating disorder, she needs to get medical help and adequate nutrition for her memory to recover. A person with an eating disorder may need to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist in addition to going to a medical doctor.
Memories are a great thing; so use your head, and you'll hopefully have your memories for years to come.
Reviewed by: Jane Crowley, PsyD
Date reviewed: January 2002
Source: KidsHealth www.KidsHealth.com is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida. Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children http://www.nemours.org/no/