What is memory? Many people would associate memory as recalling past events, such as where you put your keys. Other people would say memory is about remembering phone numbers or faces or information for a test, but a person’s memory is so much more important than that. In her article “Memory Definition & Types of Memory”, Kim Ann Zimmermann states memory is essential in our everyday lives. She continues to explain that we would not be able to function in the present or move forward without relying on our memory.
How do we form memories? Our senses, including our emotions, are a key to forming memories. Important memories typically move from short-term memory to long-term memory, such as learning to tie your shoe. You hear directions being given as you see the shoe laces and feel the shoe laces moving within your hands. With enough repetition, all these sensations go into long term memory and you end up tying your shoe without thinking about it much. This is if you do not have coordination issues. You might know how to tie your shoe, but can’t get your hands to do it. This can be very frustrating for people, especially when they are seen as unintelligent because they can’t get their hands to coordinate to tie their own shoes and they can’t verbalize their frustration in a way to get people to understand.
Another way to encode a memory into long term memory is through association or connecting it to prior knowledge. Let’s say you meet someone named Ruby. You remember her name by associating her with a red jewel. In someone who has synesthesia, you might associate a person, a number, or something else with a color. The color either reminds you of a person or the person reminds you of a color.
Information relating to something that you have a keen interest in is more likely to be stored in your long-term memory. Kim Ann Zimmermann explains this is why someone might be able to recall the stats of a favorite baseball player years after he has retired or where a favorite pair of shoes was purchased. In my case, I can recall Doctor Who stats from the past 50 years and have long conversations about Doctor Who with my daughter who is also a big fan.
See “Memory Definition & Types of Memory” for more information about the different forms of memories.
Depending where you live, April is either Autism Awareness Month or Autism Acceptance Month. In this third installment of a series show casing the strengths of Autism, I want to focus on memory recall in an autistic person. As I have stated before, moving information from short term memory to long term memory involves the use of the senses. If you were born without a sensory filter, like I was, you are bombarded with sensory input all the time.
In someone who doesn’t have Autism, their brain automatically decides what needs to be ignored and filtered out. Memories are filed as a filtered version of the original. As an autistic person, my memories are filed with all the sensory information. I don’t know what to ignore, so my brain takes in everything which causes my processing speed to slow down. It takes me longer to file things in my brain. I cannot say with absolute certainty, but I surmise that since I have to work harder to file information, because I am taking in so much at one time, I end up developing extraordinary detailed memories and I can recall these memories almost verbatim weeks, months, and even years later. Hyper focusing, hyper awareness, and hyper memory are all strengths of Autism.
Hyper memory is great when you are teaching or discussing a fandom or needing facts to back up your claims, but there can be problems associated with having a great memory and being autistic. I have executive function problems. Sure, I am really good at explaining scientific principles in detail from memory, but I have trouble remembering that I need to eat lunch (especially when I am hyper focusing) or where I parked my car. I have trouble even knowing where to begin when I am given too many things to do. My first impulse when something like that happens to me, I want to crawl into bed and block everything out. It is just too much for my brain to sort out.
I need specifics when learning a new skill or when I am tasked with a large job to do. I need these specifics broken up into chunks, because too much information at once overloads me. Information overload is very similar to sensory overload. It is very unpleasant, sometimes painful and it causes me not to be able to function very well. When this happens I often tell my kids that I have too many tabs open right now and my brain is not working right.
For more information about executive functions, see Executive Functioning - Understanding Executive Functioning Disorders
People with executive functioning problems have difficulty with planning, organizing and managing time and space. They also show weakness with working memory. Working memory, which is also referred to as short term memory, is the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information for cognitive tasks performed in daily life. Working memory depends on the control of attention and mental effort. This can be problematic when you are being distracted by the sound of the air vents or the flickering fluorescent lights and the pain that fluorescent lights cause, and the sound, movement, and scent of the people around you.
If I have multiple things going one at the same time, plus dealing with all the sensory input, and then someone chooses that time to try to tell me something or try to explain something to me, I am not going to remember what they told me or even know that they are talking to me. My working memory cannot manipulate the information and begin to file it where I can make a response or retrieve it later. The information ends up being lost. I have this extraordinary memory, but my ability to recall or articulate what has been stored in my memory can be impacted by my environment and by those around me. This can be a frustrating conundrum for me and those around me.
(Image found at kate-butenko.blogspot.com)