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15 Strategies to Optimize your Memory after a Concussion or Brain Injury

Updated: Jul 8, 2022



Difficulties with memory (e.g. remember information from conversations, remembering to do something, remembering names) are common complaints after a brain injury. Here, we'll talk about HOW we remember new information (stages of memory), then talk about the different types of memory (there are more than you think!), and then finally get into our list of strategies.


How do we remember new information?


First, let's talk about how memory works. Following the initial perception of sensory information (i.e. hearing, seeing, smelling etc.), we have three phases.

  • Encoding: This involves the processing and combining of information.

  • Storage and Consolidation: This is the process of creating and maintaining a permanent record of that new information.

  • Retrieval: This is the process of recalling that stored information for use.

Let's use an example. Let's say I want to remember my new mailman's name, Bob.


Initial Perception: I hear him introduce himself at the corner of my driveway.

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Encoding: As soon as he says his name, I immediately think "Bob, the Builder" since I just read that book to my son. Next, I think he actually looks like Bob from Schitts' Creek! Then maybe, I wonder if Bob listens to podcasts or audiobooks as he delivers the mail. I am actively encoding his name and making connections to other neural pathways.


Storage and Consolidation: I mention to my husband that we have a new mailman, Bob. I think about Bob again briefly when I read 'Bob, the Builder' my son before bed. I then get a good night sleep where the memory of "Bob" gets consolidated and stored.


Retrieval: The following week, I see Bob and am able to retrieve his name. Again, I think he really does remind me of Bob from Schitts' Creek but without that goofy jog.


Strategies can help to improve the encoding, storage, and retrieval of memories.

Short Term and Long Term Memory


Our short term memory only holds onto information for a very short period of time (i.e. 30 seconds) and corresponds to the encoding phase. Once information has been encoded it is now part of long term memory.


There are many types of long term memory but it can generally be broken down into two main groups, Procedural/Implicit Memory and Declarative/Explicit Memory.


Procedural Memory: Also called implicit or nondeclarative memory refers to the collection of unconscious learning systems. It includes:

  • Skills and Procedures are automatic tasks learned through repetition and practice. Example: Riding a bike.

  • Habit Learning refers to the gradual acquisition of associations between stimuli and responses across many trials. Example: Going for a run every day before work.

  • Classical Conditioning refers to the linking of two stimuli in a new learned response. Example: A smell that brings you back to your grandmother's kitchen.

  • Priming refers to the exposure of a stimulus or information that influences a response to a subsequent stimulus. Example: If your friend mentions they got sushi the other night, you might subconsciously remember that then suggest sushi for dinner.

Declarative Memory: Also called Explicit Memory, it involves our conscious memories and is categorized into episodic and semantic memory.

  • Episodic Memory refers to our personal experiences and events or "episodes" of our life. Example: The memory of attending your friend's wedding.

  • Semantic Memory refers to our knowledge of the world including facts, concepts and vocabulary. Example: Knowing that Ottawa is the capital of Canada.

All declarative memory starts as episodic but with enough repetition turns into semantic memory. For example, you may know that Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but don't remember when or where you learned it.



Memory Strategies - External vs. Internal


Memory strategies can be effective tools for those who have sustained a concussion or brain injury and really for ANYONE!


"My worst enemy is my memory."

The first key step in using memory strategies effectively is to identify that the new information is important and needs to be remembered. The second step is to actively choose which memory strategy (or strategies) to use and then to apply them.


Internal Memory Strategies


Internal memory strategies are mental tools or techniques to help us encode and remember new information. These help create more (and stronger!) neural connections in the brain.


Visualization
  • Create a mental image of what you want to remember

  • Try to smell, hear, and feel the image

  • The more detailed, funnier, and unique the better!

  • Great for prospective memory - remembering to do something in the future


association
  • Link new information with information you are already familiar with

  • Choose something meaningful to you

  • Focus on the similarities and differences between them

  • Helpful for trying to remember a name of a person or place



categorization
  • Also called grouping or chunking

  • Grouping items or pieces of information into smaller groups

  • Helpful for remembering lists (e.g. errands, groceries) or numbers (e.g. phone numbers)


repetition
  • Repeating or rehearsing something over and over

  • Pair with another memory strategy to make it meaningful

  • Most effective when used over spaced out intervals

  • Can be used with any type of information




elaboration
  • Involves explaining or describing something in great detail

  • Elaborate out loud or in your mind

  • Helpful with remembering new information or conversations


External Memory Strategies - Low tech


External memory strategies are physical tools you use to help with remembering new information. These tools can be categorized further into low tech versus high tech.

notebook/planner

  • Writing information down can help with the encoding of information as well as using it as a tool to recall information at a later date.

  • Keeps information all in one place


checklist
  • Can help organize information into categories

  • Categories may include work, finances, family, medical/health, home or legal

  • Helps to encode information in addition to using as a list for later recall

  • Can make a list to record each step in a task

calendar
  • Records appointments and events across time

  • Place in a clearly visible or highly trafficked area of the home (e.g. fridge) in order to review information numerous times



timer
  • Clocks, alarms on watchers, oven or kitchen timers

  • Can be used with cooking or other time sensitive tasks

  • Helps with prospective memory - trying to remember to do something in the future



Sticky note
  • Should be organized and in a highly visible area

  • Should not be used to store important, long term information



External Memory Strategies - High Tech


Smartphone
  • Smartphones, computers, tablets can be used to remember new information or conversations

  • Use notes, reminders, alarms, calendars or project trackers

  • Organize information for later recall



smart speaker
  • Voice activated, can sync with an electronic calendar

  • Can be used for alarms, reminders, or scheduling

  • Helpful with remembering appointments, upcoming events, to-do lists



smart watch
  • Voice activated, can sync with electronic calendar

  • Can be used for alarm or setting reminders

  • Helpful with remembering appointments, upcoming events or tasks



voice recorder
  • Use battery operated voice recorder or an app on the phone or watch

  • Record information for later use (doctor's appt., lecture, meeting)

  • Helpful for recall of new information



bluetooth tracker
  • Allows you to keep track of important items (e.g. keys, phone, computer)

  • Monitors the location of items via bluetooth

  • Examples include Tile Mate, Apple Air Tag and Samsung SmartTag



There is no one size fits all with memory strategies. Some may be more tech inclined, others may prefer paper and pen - or many may prefer a combination of both!


What is critical here, is the evaluation of how a particular memory strategy is working (or not working!). Does it work in some contexts, but not others? Why? Is one context or environment more distracting? What type of information do you have trouble remembering?


In the Speech-Language Pathology world (and cognitive psychology), we call this "thinking about our thinking" or metacognition.


So, why as Speech-Language Pathologists, do we care about memory? Memory plays an important role in communication. Think - following a conversation, holding onto information in your mind as you organize your thoughts, remembering what you were going to say when it's your turn to speak, understanding and remembering information from school lectures or work meetings. Communication is how we connect with others. If we can't communicate effectively with others, our relationships start to suffer.


Can you improve your memory long after a brain injury? YES! Check out our blog on Neuroplasticity and why/how this is possible.


If you or a loved one is having difficulty with memory or communication, our Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) at Neuro Connections may be able to help!


We offer 15 minute free consultations with our SLPs to discuss your concerns, answer your questions, and advise how we can help.


Contact us today at info@neuroconnections.ca to learn more. Servicing all individuals in Ontario through teletherapy and in person in the Greater Toronto Area.


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