Memory problems

Memory is easily affected by brain injury because there are several structures within the brain that are involved in memory, and injury to any of these parts can impair memory performance. As remembering involves the stages of taking in information, storing it adequately and retrieving it when needed, injury to those parts of the brain responsible for these stages can lead to poor memory.

This page provides information on memory problems after brain injury, with details of practical strategies that can help. 

It is sometimes said that the reason people with memory impairment do not remember is because they are protecting themselves from some emotional shock or trauma, and that their memory problem can be cured by hypnosis or psychotherapy, or even by another shock of some kind. While it is true that some people become amnesic for ‘psychological’ reasons (and most films, plays and fictional books about memory loss seem to suggest such reasons), the fact is that in real life such people are rare. The majority of people with memory problems have these problems for a physical reason rather than a purely psychological reason: it is not that they will not remember, but that they cannot remember.

What is memory?

People often think of memory as a single skill. However, it is not one skill on its own but can instead be thought of as a number of skills working together. We can therefore classify memory in several ways, namely:

  • the length of time information is stored
  • the type of information to be remembered
  • the stages involved in remembering
  • the kind of remembering required
  • whether the memories date from before or after the brain injury.

Amnesia

Amnesia means literally ‘a lack of or an absence of memory’. In practice, however, nobody forgets absolutely everything, so amnesia refers to a failure of some part of the memory system(s). Sometimes the  term ‘amnesia’ is used to mean any kind of memory disorder, and sometimes it is used to mean a very pure memory problem – i.e. when memory impairment is the only problem faced by an individual. 

People who suffer from amnesia are likely to:

  • show normal or near-normal immediate memory (i.e. they can repeat back a telephone number immediately)
  • have difficulty remembering things after a delay or distraction
  • have problems in learning new things
  • remember things that happened some time before their brain injury/illness better than they remember things that happened a short time before it
  • usually remember how to do things they were previously good at or had practised a great deal (e.g. playing the piano, swimming, driving a car)
  • be helped by cues, such as giving the first letter of someone’s name.

'Retrograde' and 'anterograde' amnesia

One of the questions frequently asked by relatives of people with memory impairments is, “why can she/he remember what happened 10 years ago but not what happened this morning?”, or a variation of this.  The short answer is that old memories are stored differently in the brain from new memories.

Information from before the brain injury may be forgotten. For most people with brain injuries this gap in memory from before the injury will range from a few minutes to a few months. This type of memory loss from before the injury is known as retrograde amnesia. Memories laid down well before the period of retrograde amnesia are likely to be retained well.

Problems with memory for information learned after the injury are known as anterograde amnesia, and for most people these problems are likely to be a bigger nuisance and handicap than the memory loss that predates the injury.

Strategies

Memory problems can destroy a person's sense of identity and continuity. The inability to remember events and emotions can leave people without a sense of the passage of time or of their own narrative and progression as a person. This is on top of the everyday practical difficulties with planning and organisation.

There are no easy answers for memory difficulties and it is unrealistic to expect lost function to be regained. However, there are simple, practical steps that can make a huge difference.

Our factsheet Coping with memory problems - practical strategies (PDF) provides comprehensive strategies in an easily accessible form. 

Find out more

The information on this page is adapted from the Headway booklet Coping with memory problems after brain injury (PDF), which includes more details and practical strategies to help live with memory problems. 

Contact the Headway helpline to discuss any of the issues covered here. 

My story

'A different Dad with a 10 minute memory'

It was the hidden effects of brain injury that would go on to cause daily problems for John and his wife, Jackie. It soon became apparent that John was suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from forming new memories.

Read story