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Memory problems after a brain injury: Memory vs attention span

One of the most widely reported symptoms that most brain injury survivors suffer with is memory problems. That is just a fact. For humans, our memory doesn’t work the same way as it does on your computer. It isn’t just a neat filing system with a finite amount of space that sits there until you tell it to do something different with it.

As a survivor myself, who is five years on from my accident, sometimes when I’m asked a relatively simple question, my answer will still be “I don’t know, I don’t remember.” And because I don’t always want to explain everything (and let’s be fair, I do need to give it a rest sometimes otherwise no one would ever talk to me) for ease I just say I don’t have a good memory anymore. But I admit that this isn’t entirely correct.

How memory works:

Memory can be broken down into three stages, and when you understand the stages, it’s easier to understand why you struggle to remember things:

  • Encoding – This is where you lay down how you record the information that is to be remembered. This could be audio from a conversation, text that you have read, or images you have seen.
  • Tip to boost this stage – If you write the detail down AND say it out loud, you are activating more of the brain and therefore doubling up on the encoding process. Writing it down activates your visual encoding and saying it out loud activates your acoustic encoding too. Then try to associate that with something else that you never forget. For example, a padlock code might be your mum’s birthday in reverse. Thinking of it this way uses your semantic memory, and now you have tripled your likelihood of remembering it.
  • Storage - I’ve always imagined memory as my brains filing cabinets, and it’s a question of whether the detail is in those cabinets or not. We have our working memory, A.K.A short-term memory, and our long-term memory in which we can file these details, depending on how long our brain thinks we need them for. My colleague Brooke Trotter talks more about this in How to improve your memory after a brain injury- Part 1.
  • Retrieval - There might be times when a name evades you, but it’s “on the tip on your tongue”. The moment you’re then reminded of it, the familiarity hits you, and you get the sense that you would have remembered eventually. In this circumstance, I imagine that the name was misfiled, so it was difficult to find, but it was still there. When this happens, it makes sense to consider it a problem with the recalling process known as retrieval.
  • Tip to boost this stage – Did your mum ever tell you “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”? Well, she was right. To make sure a detail will be easier to recall, strengthen the memory by going back to it again. For example, if you are trying to remember the name of a person you met earlier that day use their name several times throughout the day, even if this is by reading their name badge or privately revisiting your notes and saying their name to yourself. This will embed the memory better and make it easier to recall on another day. Just remember to think about them from time to time so if it’s a longer period of time before you next see them the memory is still “top of mind”.

The reason I don’t always remember isn’t really my memory.

If you have just read through the three stages of memory and you’re still not sure why some details just won’t stick in your head at times, you could have the same issue as me. My brain injury affected my attention span, which is a problem in itself. If you don’t concentrate when the information is being imparted to you, it’s difficult for the first stage of memory, encoding, to take place. However, by using the tip I gave you earlier for the encoding stage, you are forcing yourself to concentrate at that moment. Therefore, that is still a great way to improve your ability the recall those details later when you need to.

The good news is that you can train yourself to get better at this. Just like a muscle in the body, you can make your attention stronger. If you approach it as a new habit you need to form, you’ll be heading down the right track. Here are four steps that will improve your concentration:

  1. Get good quality sleep; it’s tough to concentrate when you’re tired.
  2. Be physically active as this has been proven to help both your brain and body to perform at their best.
  3. Stop multitasking; all it does is drag your attention to too many things. Focus on one thing at a time.
  4. Meditation helps to calm a busy mind and improves your focus.

When you understand why you struggle to remember, it’s easier to find a way to improve the situation.

Whether it’s your memory or if like me, it’s your attention span, or even if it’s both, by identifying what is happening, you can work on improving the results. Hopefully, some of the suggestions here will help you strengthen your memory, but if you need more help Brooke has detailed some of the strategies and tools he utilises in How to improve your memory after a brain injury – Part 2.


Nothing in this blog should be taken as providing medical advice or recommendations. Please always consult your doctor for medical advice and before taking any medication or supplement. Any opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not CFG Law Limited.

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