Memory problems

Memory is easily affected by brain injury because there are several structures within the brain that are involved in memory, and injury to any of these parts can impair memory performance. As remembering involves the stages of taking in information, storing it adequately and retrieving it when needed, injury to those parts of the brain responsible for these stages can lead to poor memory.

This page provides information on memory problems after brain injury, with details of practical strategies that can help: 

It is sometimes said that the reason people with memory impairment do not remember is because they are protecting themselves from some emotional shock or trauma, and that their memory problem can be cured by hypnosis or psychotherapy, or even by another shock of some kind. While it is true that some people become amnesic for ‘psychological’ reasons (and most films, plays and fictional books about memory loss seem to suggest such reasons), the fact is that in real life such people are rare.

The majority of people with memory problems have these problems for a physical reason rather than a purely psychological reason: It is not that they will not remember, but that they cannot remember.

What is memory?

People often think of memory as a single skill. However, it is not one skill on its own but can instead be thought of as a number of skills working together. We can therefore classify memory in several ways, namely:

  • the length of time information is stored
  • the type of information to be remembered
  • the stages involved in remembering
  • the kind of remembering required
  • whether the memories date from before or after the brain injury.

What is amnesia?

Amnesia means literally ‘a lack of or an absence of memory’. In practice, however, nobody forgets absolutely everything, so amnesia refers to a failure of some part of the memory system(s). Sometimes the  term ‘amnesia’ is used to mean any kind of memory disorder, and sometimes it is used to mean a very pure memory problem – i.e. when memory impairment is the only problem faced by an individual. 

People who suffer from amnesia are likely to:

  • show normal or near-normal immediate memory (i.e. they can repeat back a telephone number immediately)
  • have difficulty remembering things after a delay or distraction
  • have problems in learning new things
  • remember things that happened some time before their brain injury/illness better than they remember things that happened a short time before it
  • usually remember how to do things they were previously good at or had practised a great deal (e.g. playing the piano, swimming, driving a car)
  • be helped by cues, such as giving the first letter of someone’s name.

'Retrograde' and 'anterograde' amnesia

One of the questions frequently asked by relatives of people with memory impairments is, “why can she/he remember what happened 10 years ago but not what happened this morning?”, or a variation of this.  The short answer is that old memories are stored differently in the brain from new memories.

Information from before the brain injury may be forgotten. For most people with brain injuries this gap in memory from before the injury will range from a few minutes to a few months. This type of memory loss from before the injury is known as retrograde amnesia. Memories laid down well before the period of retrograde amnesia are likely to be retained well.

Problems with memory for information learned after the injury are known as anterograde amnesia, and for most people these problems are likely to be a bigger nuisance and handicap than the memory loss that predates the injury.

Strategies for coping with memory problems

Memory problems can destroy a person's sense of identity and continuity. The inability to remember events and emotions can leave people without a sense of the passage of time or of their own narrative and progression as a person. This is on top of the everyday practical difficulties with planning and organisation.

There are no easy answers for memory difficulties and it is unrealistic to expect lost function to be regained. However, there are simple, practical steps that can make a huge difference.

Our factsheet Coping with memory problems - practical strategies (PDF) provides comprehensive strategies in an easily accessible form. 

Frequently asked questions about memory problems after brain injury

Here we answer some of the helpline’s most frequently asked questions on memory problems:

Why do I keep forgetting the news I’ve read this morning, but I can remember things from years ago?

Memory is not technically one single skill; there are lots of different types of memories stored across the brain and different ways of categorising them. Often, people refer to memories in two broad categories: short term and long term.

The basic stages of getting information from short-term to long-term memory are initially taking information in, storing it and retrieving it when needed (i.e. remembering). Different parts of the brain are involved in these stages, for instance the hippocampus is a part of the brain involved in storing long-term memories.

Long-term memories have had time to undergo each stage and be stored properly through a process known as consolidation. Day-to-day memories, on the other hand, are new information that have not had a chance to undergo this process of consolidation. A brain injury can affect any of the stages involved in this process, therefore disrupting memory storage and leading to poor recollection of the information.

Will I ever get my memories back after brain injury?

Personal memories, known as anecdotal memories, can and do often return after brain injury. Sometimes this can take place over the course of the initial recovery period, while other memories may take weeks, months or even years to gradually return. Some memories can be encouraged to return by looking at photographs, personal objects or listening to music relating to the memory.

It is common for the memories immediately preceding and following the incidence of the injury to remain ‘forgotten’. Sadly, there may be memories that do not return directly to you, or memories that return but are not as clear as they used to be. It is perfectly normal to grieve for this loss. You can try to feel a stronger connection to the memory by talking to family and friends about it or looking through photographs.

New memories can still be formed as you continue your journey through your life after brain injury. You may wish to document these new memories, such as special events, recovery milestones or even day-to-day activities, by taking photos or keeping a diary.

How can I improve my memory after brain injury?

While there is no specific or instant ‘cure’ for memory problems, recovery can naturally occur as the brain heals over time. It may also be that some of the other effects of your brain injury, such as fatigue or problems with concentration, interfere with the ability to focus on information to learn it in the first place, so addressing these problems may in turn help to improve your memory.

Rehearsing information or practising routines can help with remembering information. A family member or friend could help by testing you with successively longer gaps between you rehearsing the information and being tested on it each time.

‘Errorless learning’ is a memory training technique that research has found to be effective for learning specific processes or sequences of things. It entails learning the information correctly the first time round so that mistakes are not accidentally learnt first. Someone can help you with learning and practicing the information correctly the first time round and gradually reducing the amount of help given.

Many people with memory problems use external memory aids (such as diaries, calendars, to-do lists etc), to help with remembering information. Research suggests that using technology such as pagers, portable electronic devices, alarms and voice recorders can also be helpful.

More information on memory problems

My story

'A different Dad with a 10 minute memory'

It was the hidden effects of brain injury that would go on to cause daily problems for John and his wife, Jackie. It soon became apparent that John was suffering from anterograde amnesia, a condition that prevents him from forming new memories.

Read story

The information on this page is adapted from the Headway booklet Coping with memory problems after brain injury (PDF), which includes more details and practical strategies to help live with memory problems. 

Contact the Headway helpline to discuss any of the issues covered here.