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What is memory?

Researchers have studied ‘memory’ over many years. There are lots of different theories about how memory works. This page will focus on how long term memories are made and used in our day to day lives and how memory may be affected by hydrocephalus. You can find more information about ‘short term ‘or ‘working memory’ by clicking here.

Long term memory is the storage of information in the brain so that we can make use of it again. Once a memory is properly in place, it may be there for ever. The brain seems to have endless amounts of ‘space’ for holding memories, so, in theory we should be able to remember countless numbers of things. However the brain stores information in a way that means we don’t instantly ‘know what we know’: memories are held unconsciously. The brain uses lots of different processes to find the information it needs and bring it to mind when it’s needed.

Some things are remembered without any thought at all and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to remember things. Hydrocephalus can make any type of remembering more difficult.

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True memory problems

It is common to hear people talk about memory problems eg:

  • having a ‘bad memory’
  • being unable to remember
  • always forgetting

While these terms might be used to describe a person with hydrocephalus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a loss of memory. True loss of memory or ‘amnesia’ is relatively rare. It is more likely that there has been a problem with the processes that the brain uses when making memories (encoding and storing) or remembering (retrieving) things.

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Stages of memory processing

There are thought to be three stages in memory processing:

  • Encoding: where we receive and make sense of information from the world (environment).
  • Storage: when we create a long term ‘record’ of the information once we have received and understood it.
  • Retrieval: when we look for and find the memory ‘record’ and bring information into the front of the mind so that we can use it.

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Some key processes involved in memory

key process in memory

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Encoding and storage

Encoding is the process of receiving and understanding the information that we sense (see or hear, for example). This means that we need to focus on or ‘attend’ to information long enough to create an understanding. A child or young person with hydrocephalus could have problems with either attention or comprehension that might stop things in the environment from being understood and encoded properly.

If information is not encoded properly the brain will have difficulty creating and storing the new memory. A new memory is made by linking the new information to things we already know. Creating new memories is likely to involve processes described in Learning.

How we have encoded a piece of information can make a difference to if how or when it is remembered (retrieved).

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Retrieving memories automatically

Sometimes a memory doesn’t need to be brought into consciousness. We remember how to do many things without having to think about them first. Things like: riding a bike; or brushing our teeth. There are quite a lot of things we do fairly ‘automatically’. Someone with hydrocephalus could have problems with automatically remembering how to do something. This may be more likely to happen when there are several things going on at once.

If attention is distracted, the memory that is needed may not be triggered or may go ‘out of focus’ e.g. trying to have a conversation with a child or young person with hydrocephalus while they brush their teeth or put their coat on, could stop them from persisting with the task. The brain’s ‘command centre’ controls when and where attention is directed, including automatic memory retrieval. Someone with hydrocephalus may have problems with automatic retrieval because of problems in attention or the control of attention by the brain’s Executive Functions.

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Retrieving memories for a purpose

When we have to do something, or have a ‘goal’, this focuses our attention on what we need to know and what we might already have in our memory stores that can help. We have to pick up on the ‘cues’ that help to focus our thoughts and actions so that we can deal with the situation appropriately.

Picking up on the wrong cues might trigger the wrong memory and lead to a mistake. Someone with hydrocephalus can make mistakes in what they do or say in any situation. This might be because they have made use of the ‘wrong’ memory. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a problem with ‘memory’: the ‘right’ memory may very well be stored but it may hard to find. Mistakes in memory selection can be about:

  • Not paying attention to, or misunderstanding the cues.
  • Having too many memories to choose from e.g. a question about ‘school’ may trigger lots of different memories. The child needs to work out a way to choose: they need to problem solve.
  • Being unable to stop acting on the first memory that comes to mind even if it’s the wrong one. They may be unable to inhibit the initial impulse to act.
  • Being unable to keep up with everything that is happening in the situation. This may mean that they act on the wrong prompts or ‘cues’ or their response arrives too late.

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Responding to prompts or ‘cues’

When a memory is encoded and stored lots of links or ‘connections’ are made between different ideas or ‘concepts’. When we retrieve a memory the brain needs to ‘activate’ the same pattern of connections so that we can remember. This usually starts with a prompt or ‘cue’.

A cue can be anything: a smell, a noise, a word or something we’ve seen. Executive functions direct our attention to the cues that matter most in a situation. This is complex and uses lots of the brain’s processes.

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Limiting choice/offering options

A child or young person with hydrocephalus may find it difficult to answer ‘open’ questions. They might find ‘vague’ instructions difficult to follow.

For example:

  • “What do you want to do today?”
  • “Time to get dressed.”

This may be because the question or statement doesn’t give enough information for the person to start or initiate a response. Or, it is so open or vague that the young person struggles to work out or plan what they should do next. The person may need more cues to help them know what they need to do.

For example:

  • “Would you like to feed the ducks at the pond or go to the play park this afternoon?”
  • “Here are the clothes we laid out last night. Here’s your reminder sheet. Now you go ahead and put the clothes on, just like you did yesterday.”

The question and instructions given above provide lots more cues. Because they limit the number of possibilities, the young person is more likely to be able to give an answer or to follow the instruction. Children with hydrocephalus might also benefit from limited choices when dealing with questions or problems in school e.g. multiple choice type questions. When the ‘right’ answer is given among some other ones, the child may find it easier to remember or to ‘recognise’ it.

When providing extra cues, or reminders, it is worthwhile trying these in different forms e.g. picture and word form. Reminders for getting dressed, for example, could come in pictures of items of clothing in the right order. Or, they could be written in a numbered list. Different things will work for different people. It may take time and trial and error to find out what works best.

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Key processes involved in using memories to act

key process in using memory to act


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Possible problems

Difficulties with memory (encoding, storage or retrieval) may result in difficulties:

Use the links above or take a look at the Living with Hydrocephalus section for more information on specific difficulties as well as hints and tips to help.

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