As the year draws to a close, it’s a time when many of us will reflect on the year and our fondest memories of the past 365 days. Memories and experiences and particularly those that we recall well, define and shape our personalities but aside from their emotional resonance, memories are also biological processes that occur in the brain.
Dr Suhail Abdulla Alrukn, Consultant Neurology, Head of Stroke Programme at Rashid Hospital (DHA) and President of Emirates Neurology Society, says that memory can be interpreted in a number of different ways. “Memory has different components for how people define it but, in general, memory is anything that the brain is able to register, such as visual memories, speech memories, knowledge memories and tactile memories.
“For example, there is a working memory, brief memory, short memory, long-term memory, semantic and non-semantic memory as well as procedural memory.”
Dr Alrukn says that the most powerful memories are categorised as procedural. “Procedural memory could be explained through activities such as horse riding,” he says. “You can learn to ride horses and then, after 20 years, you will be able to ride again with no training. This is because horse riding will have been stored as a procedural memory and this is the strongest type of memory.”
After three or four years, we start to form memories and usually, our peak memory age is between 10 and 25. After the age of 65 and 70, the memory starts to decline.
Working memory, which can be typified through activities such as remembering processes when you’re solving equations at school, has similarities to semantic memory, which are memories based fact-based learning, such as geography. Semantic memories are long-term memories, which aren’t drawn from personal experience, and Dr Alrukn says that it can be complicated to differentiate between the two.
“It is very difficult to differentiate between semantic memory and working memory but one example could be when a patient visits the clinic with early dementia [which disrupts certain forms of semantic memory]. For example there is a type called frontotemporal dementia, where the patient has a deep disinhibition behavioural problem.
“It is a rare type of dementia so, for example, a gentlemen who always dressed well and behaved correctly will start to behave badly, using bad words and gestures and wearing unusual clothes.
“To differentiate between semantic and working memory, there are different tests that we can carry out to establish which part of the brain is affected by the dementia.”
The age factor
As our bodies grow and develop, so too does our ability to establish memories. Adversely, as we age and our bodies start to deteriorate, our memory also declines. “During the developmental stage, between birth and the age of three or four, the brain is still growing and it does not register much except day-to-day activities,” explains Dr Alrukn. “It is very rare for someone to remember something when they are one or two years old.
“After three or four years, we start to form memories and, our peak memory age is usually between 10 and 25. After the age of 65 and 70, the memory starts to decline.”
The distinction between distraction and memory-loss
A common issue Dr Alrukn faces is when people visit his clinic, complaining of deteriorating memory, when their problem with recollecting certain instances is actually related to their limitations with multitasking and other distractions or interruptions.
“When someone between the ages of 35 and 40 comes to the clinic and says they have started to forget things or struggle with memory, they often believe it is early Alzheimer’s. But a common problem in the community is when someone has issues with their attention — not their memory.
“For example, when we are at school, we usually have one common task such as studying and memorising facts from a book.
“If I’m sitting at a desk trying to solve an equation and my child is crying, the TV is turned on and my wife is cooking, my sons are playing and the dog is barking outside — I will not be able to solve the equation. It is an attention issue, not a memory issue.”
If you are distracted or struggling to juggle multiple thoughts, tasks and distractions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re at fault due to an inability to multitask. In fact, Dr Alrukn says that, in his experience, the majority of people are limited in the number of tasks they can complete simultaneously. “Most people can perform two tasks at the same time but very few can perform three tasks simultaneously. Rarely can people perform four tasks at the same time.”