Nervous system & amp; brain

Gaps in memory: causes and therapy

Gaps in memory: causes and therapy

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"Memories are data-based inventions." Brain researcher Wolf Singer.
Our brain is made up of nerve networks. Electrical stimuli stimulate nerve cells and they send chemical messages on. The more "worn out" these "paths" are, the more secure the brain makes a connection. The experiences of our life are passively stored in memory until our brain calls them up. Memory activates many nerve cells together; If we remember a vacation in our childhood, a pattern arises in the brain. An old friend's phone number, the street we grew up on, a first name, a photo - they all set patterns of nerve cells in action. One key word is enough in an exam.


When we are in a foreign culture, we (unconsciously) look for stimuli to put such patterns on tour. Anyone who moves to a new city believes again and again in the first months that they meet well-known people: looks, hairstyles, clothes, all of this gets the nerves going. We need these associations to orientate ourselves in the world. Memory always selects and excludes at the same time.

It is never objective. If a person reminds us of someone with whom we had bad experiences because his name is Stefan Schmidt, one person has nothing to do with the other in external reality. The Native Americans are now called Indians because Columbus believed he had landed in India; the new world reminded him of what he had read in books about India.

All kinds of memories

We differentiate between short-term and long-term memory. The short-term memory lies in the forehead and parietal lobe. The information stored there disappears after a short time, we forget it because it is no longer important and we need "storage space" for something new. Some of the information migrates into long-term memory, which is not limited. Memory is the work of both memories.

The temporal lobes, limbic system and hippocampus work together for long-term memory. In long-term memory, we call up our CV and know how to fill out the tax return.

Memory is not the same as memory. We have a memory of our life story. There we save places and times that we combine with our own experiences. Then there is the factual memory. Here we store academic knowledge that has nothing to do with our life experience. Thirdly, we save movements: riding a bike, swimming or using a computer. The fourth memory is called "priming" - the improvised memory of the unconscious. A new attraction only resembles what we know.

“Priming” enables us to classify the unknown and to act in new situations. However, "priming" quickly leads to an incorrect assessment of the environment: a white tuber agaric is reminiscent of a mushroom, but is poisonous. These different forms of memory are not strictly separated: swimming, cycling or writing texts can only be called up unconsciously when we train them.

Our feelings are motors: We are afraid of an exam and remember a math exam that went wrong; we enjoy a warm summer night and think of a long-ago trip to the Caribbean; in the cafe we ​​get a strict look from our table neighbor and remind us of how our mother scolded us because we came home drunk as a teenager.


All people are forgetful - to a certain extent. We go to the supermarket to buy coffee and come back with two shopping bags; but we forgot the coffee. To a certain extent, forgetting is not sick, but even necessary, and when we remember, we forget something else.

The absent-minded professor who has become a cliché, for example, has activated so many nerve pathways in his knowledge that he forgets everyday life. We also forget because new stimuli activate our nerves, as in the example of the supermarket: at home, when we are tired, we only think of coffee; Hundreds of other products await us in the store, which we also associate with positive associations.

To screw up, to lose or to oversleep are "tricks" of our brain to avoid unpleasant situations. The telephone bill remains stored in the passive part of the memory; we are displacing it, both consciously and unconsciously.

Gaps in memory are also a reaction to too many stimuli: Setting up the new smartphone, answering 20 emails and flooding us with multimedia at the same time means that we forget our daily structure. Taking stock of what is really important to us and controlling the stimuli helps - for example, by not switching on the Internet two days a week.

Everyone knows “flakiness” and it depends on what our brain stores as important. Older people in particular are not necessarily sick because they forget everyday things. The “trained” pathways in their brains often no longer correspond to their environment, and they have to use their improvised memory more often than the boys who grew up in a changing society.

A study at the University of Berkeley showed why older people generally have more memory deficits than young people. Your brain doesn't hide unimportant information. The researchers each assigned a group of 60 to 77 year olds and 19-30 year olds the ability to remember either two faces or two landscapes from a series of four images. A magnetic resonance scanner showed how the brains worked.

The boys reduced their brain activity, which saves faces when they focus on landscapes - and vice versa. Ten of the sixteen "old brains" worked on both subjects. The more the brains of the elderly reacted to the unimportant stimuli, the less the test subjects remembered. The experiment did not prove why six of the seniors were able to concentrate.

Memory loss takes different forms. With retrograde amnesia, the person concerned forgets the time before a certain event, for example before a house fire. With anterograde amnesia, on the other hand, he forgets new experiences; in the case of congressional amnesia, he loses memory of a certain event. Trauma is often the cause here - the brain displaces the event. With amnestic syndrome, everyday but not long-term memory works.

The amnesia

Amnesia means memory loss. Memories are no longer accessible, but the parts of the brain that store the sequence of actions are usually not affected. Turning on hot water works, but remembering your own life is difficult.

Forward amnesia occurs frequently. The victim gets along in the here and now, but cannot save new information or call up stored information. Retroactive amnesia means that the affected person no longer remembers what happened before their brain damage. The memory sometimes comes back, but it remains incomplete.

The worst of the amnesias is the global one. First, the patient loses his long-term memory, even memories from his childhood are no longer accessible to him; secondly, it does not record new information. Only the stored processes remain intact: the person with this disability could stick a nail in the wall to hang a picture of his parents, but would not know that it was his parents. Such global amnesia is neither curable nor reversible.

Global amnesia can also pass. We then speak of a transient global amnesia or episodic amnesia. It usually starts suddenly and only lasts a few hours. During this time, the affected person lacks the old memory content as with retrograde amnesia. He also forgets new information - in a maximum of three minutes. He can continue to learn the skills he has learned. Such temporary amnesias occur after an acute stress - be it physical or emotional. Arguing with a partner or the death of a familiar person triggers this memory loss as well as a jump into freezing water or sexual ecstasy. 85% of those affected are over 60 years of age.

A temporary global amnesia can be recognized by the fact that the person concerned always asks the same questions, but remains "himself". If, on the other hand, his personality changes, he appears sleepy or hyperactive, this speaks against this form of memory loss. If the victim has previously been traumatized, suffers from clinical depression or epilepsy or abuses drugs, then temporary amnesia is also unlikely. The cause is a congestion of blood in the brain, the temporal lobe does not get enough oxygen and cannot work; once this blood congestion is resolved, the brain functions normally again. The temporary amnesia is relatively "harmless". The memory returns on its own, and there is no long-term damage.

Congrade amnesia only clears the memory of the triggering event. The affected person can easily access their long-term memory and take up new information.

Psychogenic amnesia responds to trauma or not necessarily traumatic but negative situations and experiences. These will be suppressed.

Causes of amnesias include concussions, epileptic seizures, meningitis, strokes, migraines, poisoning, psychological stress, psychotropic drugs, alcohol and poisoning.

Everyone knows an amnesia. No one remembers their earliest childhood up to the age of 2-3 years. This is probably because we do not yet recognize ourselves as an individual at this time. Our brains, our ability to speak and to form meaningful associations are only beginning to form during this time, and it is likely that the brain in the toddler has not yet formed the structures to network information.

Korsakow syndrome

Alcohol causes special amnesia. It is named after the Russian neurologist Sergei Korsakov (1854-1900): The Korsakow syndrome. Korsakov published a study on a "polyneurotic amnestic syndrome" after examining 18 alcoholics.

Above all, the sick lose their short-term memory, old memories are also missing, but not to the same extent; they often cannot even remember information for minutes. "Filling gaps" is typical of Korsakow: They replace the holes in short-term memory with old memories and are not aware of it. For example, in discussions, they build on long-ago discussions that have nothing to do with the topic; they confront people about conflicts they have experienced in the present; this goes hand in hand with psychological regression: for example, you choose a “way home” that leads you to an apartment from which you moved out a long time ago.

These alcoholics fill memory gaps with pure fantasies. For example, they accuse others of something they have never said, but are firmly convinced that their counterpart is lying if he denies it. In such cases, it is difficult to separate memory loss and alcohol psychosis. Or they impose on others what is only going on in their own head.

Kosakow patients lose awareness of space and time; they can no longer find their way around in their apartment. They also tire quickly and fluctuate between euphoria and hopelessness.

The central nervous system is damaged by the alcohol, and the peripheral nerves also suffer. What Korsakow called polyneuropathy means various disorders: The patients have problems coordinating their movements. They stumble, sit next to the chair, or the coffee cup falls out of their hands. The autonomic nervous system is also affected: those affected freeze quickly, their skin becomes pale, their eyes are glassy.

The cause of this memory loss is a lack of vitamin B. 1. Korsakow examined alcoholics, and they are predestined for such a deficiency that they consume calories mainly as alcohol. The limbic system is damaged - especially the hippocampus. The addition of vitamin B 1 helps, but in an advanced state Korsakow is not curable.


Dementia is a term used to refer to various illnesses that limit thinking. Dementes can hardly process new experiences. They are poorly oriented, have problems reading, speaking and doing arithmetic.

One million people suffer from Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia. In Alzheimer's, brain cells die off, caused by proteins inside and outside the nerve cells. In the advanced stage, the sick no longer know what their names are, do not recognize their relatives and do not know where they are. Strokes disrupt blood flow to the brain, followed by vascular dementia. The memory is retained longer than in Alzheimer's, but eventually also disappears.

Lewy body dementia is named after bodies in the brain stem and cerebral cortex. If these are attacked, those affected also lose their memory; at the same time, they behave like in a psychosis, thus develop delusional ideas and lose consciousness about space and time.

Pick's disease destroys the frontal and temporal lobes. The patients can remember, but lose the ability to think abstractly. Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease destroys brain tissue with toxic proteins. The sick lose their memory, cannot concentrate and hardly notice their surroundings.

Psychological problems also lead to memory loss, depression and anxiety disorders. Depressed people are not only unable to cope with everyday life, they also forget stored processes; they forget to take a shower, transfer the rent or buy something. In those who are afraid of fear, fear dislodges the memory patterns of positive stimuli or overlays them: a smartphone reminds of "poisoning with fine dust" and a man with a dark beard reminds of an Al Quaida terrorist. Only long-term psychotherapy can help here.

Alcohol and heroin abuse, cancer therapies, sedatives, negative stress, insufficient sleep, and a lack of fluids also promote forgetting.

From the age of 50 people should pay attention to warning signs: Can I no longer find my way in a familiar environment? At the end of a TV show, don't I know what happened at the beginning? Do I forget things even though I paid full attention to them? Can't remember my neighbor's name? Then I should see a doctor.


If you suffer from the fact that you forget everyday things so often that this becomes a problem for you and others, you should go to the doctor. He asks since when has she reduced her forgetfulness, whether she is increasing, whether she can no longer remember things that used to be no problem, whether she can no longer do familiar work. Neuropsychological tests help to identify dementia. In the meantime, Alzheimer's cannot be detected in the laboratory, but only by behavior. For example, the patient does the “watch test”. He draws the digits of a clock and two hands in a circle, which show the time. Dementes can usually do this

The computer shows whether the brain is shrinking. This is typical of dementia. The ECG shows whether the brain is adequately supplied with blood. Muscle and pupil tests show whether the nervous system works normally. Blood pictures show the consequences of alcohol and drug abuse. Psychological tests are designed to show anxiety disorders and depression.

The therapy is as different as the cause of the memory loss. If a disease is the cause, forgetfulness usually disappears with it.

Memory training

Training can at least alleviate all forms of forgetfulness. The first thing to do is a healthy lifestyle, balanced diet and exercise. Exercise activates the nerve cells, and it's not about performance. Choosing a new route during your daily walk brings passive memories into action. Techniques to relax, such as yoga, also promote memory. Mentally demanding activities keep the brain busy: reading, discussing or playing chess.

This is particularly important for old people. From the age of 50, the nerve cells shrink anyway, short-term memory crumbles, and older people forget things that are not fully focused on; But forgetfulness in old age is not a natural law; social circumstances promote memory loss in old age. The job no longer demands the brain and the cells shrivel up. For many, age means social isolation. The energy no longer comes "on its own" and physical ailments tempt you to sit on the sofa. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether you learn philosophical terms, solve crossword puzzles or memorize the phone book - mental work trains the ability to remember.

However, this "brain jogging" brings little clinical dementia. Because their memory does not deteriorate due to a lack of training. Rather, they need to learn to train their long-term memory, which stores their memories.

People with amnesia should go to familiar places, surround themselves with personal things and at the same time look for an environment that supports them spiritually.

Forgetfulness is often due to the conditions: If we are not interested in something, our brain does not save it; when we're overworked, the brain clears memories. The Internet today leads to a flood of information that the organism can hardly absorb. So instead of trying to save more and more, we should sit back and learn slowly and calmly.

Sleep is crucial for a good memory, because the information moves from working memory into long-term memory. Dream work makes it possible to activate long-term memory.

Muscles and nerve cells are linked. When the muscles are active, they produce messenger substances that support the brain cell. Physical work causes the hippocampus to form nerve cells that store memory. Proteins from the muscles strengthen the nerve cells. Regular exercise increases neurotransmitters like serotonin.

Dementia cannot be cured through exercise, but it can be prevented. People who do sports in middle age are less likely to develop Alzheimer's in old age.

The psyche and memory loss

People between 20 and 35 are increasingly suffering from memory loss. Psychological problems are usually the trigger. Permanent negative stress combined with fear of existence is a cause. The autobiographical memory is particularly affected. Lack of orientation and perspective, exploding pressure to perform at the university and on the job market probably trigger this memory loss. The psychological pressure puts a strain on the nerves and the brain reacts with a blockage.

Students coined the term “learning bulemia” for compulsory performance at the university. They stuff knowledge for the exams in order to "vomit" it. The "knowledge" pressed into it cannot enter long-term memory. Those affected feel empty and cannot save what they have memorized in their autobiographical memory. Since they do not integrate knowledge and thus move further and further away from sustainable life experiences, a memory loss is the logical consequence. The “knowledge at the push of a button” also suggests that previous insights, which are stored in long-term memory, would be worthless. The associative patterns that provide orientation shatter. In the end there are desperate people who can no longer rely on the information stored in the brain.

The biographical memory is located in the area where emotion and cognition flow together - this is where most of the receptors for stress hormones are located, and both are linked to one another.

The lost memories can sometimes be reactivated by therapy. This is of little use, however, since those affected are again exposed to the same compulsion to perform when the therapy is over. Some patients resign themselves to this and lead a “new life” with a flattened emotional world.

Deceptive memory

Partially losing memory or remembering incorrectly is rarely pathological - it is normal. Recent studies suggest that remembering, like memories, is an active process: our brain organizes memories retrospectively to adapt them to our needs. In literary terms, we develop the storyline of our life and keep redesigning the scripts. What and how we remember is linked to our imagination and our respective feelings.

Lawyers know that testimonies often have little to do with what happened without the respondents lying. Subjects who imagined events like an earthquake often later believed that they had experienced this themselves in childhood. Film scenes and narratives sneak into memory as supposedly own experiences.

Our memory is less like a documentary and more like the narrative structure of a novel. The brain deletes people, places and events if they do not fit in the plot; Minor characters come to the fore when the story requires it; Events rewrite events so that they round off the storyline. The memory reconstructs selected information and puts it into action.

This information need not be your own experience; we can imagine events as vividly as if we had experienced them ourselves. Esoterics, for example, “awaken” the “memory of past lives”. "Purely by accident", "new witches" can be found in the body of a woman who was burned as a witch at the stake, feel the heat, smell the smoke. Remembering your own experiences and feeling yourself into something you have not experienced merges into one another.

Our emotions make up the mood from information: a depressed person remembers dark experiences, well-being puts the past in a warm light. It helps people in psychological crises to remember moments when they were happy. Firstly, because they recognize that their suffering does not always last, secondly because the brain collects positive associations that improve the mood in the here and now.

A diary is useful to confront memories with reality. In retrospect, it reveals how our condition was real in each phase of life. For example, if you are in a life crisis at 30 and torment yourself with what opportunities you would have had at 25 and did not take advantage of, you can sometimes see from a diary that you were not able to realize your potential at that time .

Speaking to people who were also at an event changes our memory of it. We even make up false memories, either to fill in inadequacies or because others tell us.

This is particularly easy when fiction has an anchor in reality. When friends of our youth tell us a story about stealing apples together, the neighbors' fruit trees really existed and we were there on tour together, we save the fictional prank under experiences, despite the initial doubts.

We forget a lot, others overdo our brains; the memory twisted, distorted and simplified. This can have fatal consequences in court.

Brain crime stories

People are on trial for crimes they have not committed; "Perpetrators" think they have done terrible things, even though they are innocent; Others report horrific experiences they never had. Sometimes they are deliberate lies; but memories often play tricks on us.

Before a pogrom, for example, the perpetrators remember situations in which their later victims behaved "suspiciously". Wasn't the witch suspect hanging around when the cows got sick? Hate preachers scatter false information, and their fear-driven followers incorporate it into their memories.

Donald Thomson was on trial for rape. The applicant described a perpetrator who was like him. The accused, however, had a waterproof alibi: he was talking on a talk show on television at the time of the crime. The victim had seen the broadcast and was raped immediately afterwards. Thomson's face had saved her brain.

This delusional memory is called misallocation. The memory correctly reconstructs details like a face, but classifies them incorrectly. We think we've seen something ourselves; in reality we heard about it or got the information from television.

Police officers and prosecutors must therefore question witnesses carefully and avoid any suggestion. False memories arise especially when someone is under stress - for example during interrogation. Hormones like glucortilcoids affect how the brain perceives stimuli.

Exactly when the accused or witness is supposed to remember, he also reshapes the memory, and the slightest manipulations direct it in another direction. For example, whether the policeman asks a witness how the defendant "looked" at the victim or whether he "stared" may change neutral memories of blame.

The American court expert Elisabeth Loftus found in an empirical study no difference between real and fictional memories. The fantasies were just as detailed, and just as saturated with emotions as reality. Right memories are built up just like wrong ones: the brain assembles fragments into an image.

Caution is advised when therapists literally search for a supposedly secret memory, even put pressure on the person concerned, and the memory gains more and more shape. The witch trials of the early modern era, whose aim was to confess, provide frightening evidence of this. Under the torture, the accused were doing things they could never have done, such as intercourse with the devil - and many of the victims believed they had done evil magic.

Mental disorders such as borderline syndrome are characterized by pseudo memories, since the sick cannot differentiate between reality and fiction. Their disorder is often caused by violent experiences and they project the traumatic experience onto others. Since those affected believe their fictions themselves, the plasticity of the accusations is also credible.


The déja-vu also deludes the memory. In reincarnation believers, in situations that appear to us to have been there before, they see fragments of a memory of past lives. To date, Déja-vus cannot adequately explain neuropsychology.

It is possible that the brain immediately perceived what had been experienced before, without us being aware of it. If we then consciously recognize the situation a second time, it has already been saved as a reminder.

Associations can also explain Déja-vus: A herb shop in Istanbul evokes memories of a Christmas market of our childhood without our brains delivering the images at the same time. Without having been there before, this place seems familiar to us. A hostel in the Czech Republic is at the same distance from a river as our parent's house, and we seem to be familiar with the way.

Other people's stories also trigger the feeling of having been here before. This is how the author felt when he first came to Lusatia in the east of Saxony. The villages, the people, the nature; everything seemed like a journey into his own past. He later learned that his now 80-year-old nanny had had a farm right there before she fled to West Germany after the Second World War. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


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Video: Testing Your Memory (November 2022).