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What’s up with Memory?

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“It is an important part of what makes us truly human, and yet it is one of the most elusive and misunderstood of human attributes.”


What is memory?

I loved this website, and thought I would read it, share some parts of it, and think of how to apply it to our population of children who are deafblind.  Memory is something that is much more complex than we can begin to imagine.  To simplify things, it has been compared to a super-computer, or a complex filing cabinet.  It would have been simpler if memory was located in one place in the brain; but it isn’t.  It involves a process that occurs all over the brain (Distributed Processing) in patterns that we really cannot fully comprehend and is reflected in our body’s sensory and other systems. So, it might be better to imagine a really complex web of intrinsically connected threads that “symbolize the various elements of a memory that join at nodes or intersection points” (http://www.human-memory.net/) to create a whole memory.  Since memory is distributed, when there is damage to one or more parts of the brain, some memory is retained in the undamaged or less damaged areas.  Let us look at some basic memory information and think about deafblindness and its impact on memory.

Types of memory:

These three can be thought of as levels where one leads to the next:

Sensory memory  —  Short term memory — Long term memory

You need all three to have a really well-established memory of something.  Because it completes the “storing” process, this will also give us some idea why long term memories usually persist when short-term memory fails.  It is then reasonable to think if a child has a memory that is established in this way, we should try to connect other memories to it – so the “new” memory is added to and strengthened. Concepts are broadened in this way as part of the process.

Are there implications for our children who are deafblind?  When a person’s body “lights up” in a specific way to an emotion, the body-brain connection provides that emotional piece that only serves to strengthen what the child is learning.  If all remembered emotions were positive – this would be so beneficial.  But this is not always what happens.  Perhaps if we knew or could guess what the less than-positive ones were, we could work on connecting them to more positive activities and memories.  For example, a child who had been a premature baby has emotional memories connected to heel sticks (for blood-draws).  This child may not even consciously remember this, but the pain and emotional upset connected with them may remain, hovering in the background in his memory.  He may react poorly to massage when someone touches his foot and heel – even though there is no actual pain – and display emotional distress.  Even though infant-child massage dictates starting with the feet and legs, perhaps for this child starting from a less vulnerable place on the child’s body will help to relax the child.  Doing the heels last may, in time, help transfer the emotions from negative to positive. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/body-sense/201204/emotional-and-physical-pain-activate-similar-brain-regions

  • Short term memory – also known as “working memory”. See the ‘video-watch’ section of our newsletter: http://www.oregondb.org/news/Fall2014.pdf   I love that the website I am looking at calls short-term memory the brain’s “post-it” note.  It is not meant to stay and is more for instant and quick recall – unless it is processed and stored. http://www.human-memory.net/types_short.html  .   The same article gives a couple of good examples.  If you are reading a sentence, your short term memory has to keep track of the earlier part of the sentence so that the whole sentence can then be put together for meaning.  I picked this example because so many of our children cannot keep too much information in short term memory.  For example, they may hear and understand the first part of the sentence and lose the rest, or only make note of the tail end of the statement.  SO – wouldn’t it help to (a) shorten sentences – or even use phrases; (b) Look for comprehension (and storage of this) before moving on, and (c) Practice recall really soon after – and repeat, repeat, repeat?  It is also helpful to figure out if we need to use one-step, two-step – or more – directions with a specific child.  Too many steps all at once, and you may lose the child’s attention and muddy his comprehension. Since the pre-frontal cortex (front of the head) is thought to be the main part involved in short-term memory, damage to this area of the brain results in poor working memory – and this will disrupt the process of memories being stored to be retrieved.
    • What are some possible factors/techniques to help our children so that a short-term memory is stored in long-term memory?
      • Make sure the child is attending – and is relaxed.
      • Simplify what it is that needs remembering.
      • Repeat, repeat, repeat.
      • Attach it to a context.
      • Connect it to something that is of interest to the child and so provide motivation.
      • Try using Mnemonics with some children. Music mnemonics are interesting….  http://learningassistance.com/2006/january/mnemonics.html .  Remember “knuckle mnemonics”?  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knucklemnemonic.jpg .  If you are a creative person, you can perhaps create some “touch mnemonics”, based on the “likes” and preferences of a child, that might help “anchor” ideas and concepts.\
      • Link to “old” and established memories – and provide cues (visual, auditory, or other sensory).
      • If a child is able to speak or sign—have them repeat, using words or signs – and not just passively listening to or heeding your message.
      • Use “chaining” (an Applied Behavior technique)– both backward and forward – depending on what it is. It could be simple instructions, or a routine:
      • Remember – reduce distractions because they will possibly erase the short-term memory and you will have to start over.
      • Be aware that each child will differ in “memory span” – i.e., how many things in a row can be recalled. Miller’s Law suggests that the “magic number” is 7+ or -2.  For our children who are deafblind and have additional severe disabilities, this will be less. The human memory website also reminds us that memory span can differ between cultures.  For example, “..English-speakers can typically hold seven digits in short-term memory; Chinese speakers can typically remember ten digits.”  The reason?  “Chinese number words are all single syllables, whereas English are not.”
      • “Chunking” or putting together in a group is one technique – the ideal being 3; but this may or may not be possible to use with a specific child. It’s okay if you only do ONE thing a time – a chunk of one!

In short – grab an important idea or concept from short-term memory – and find a way to help it stay!

  • Long term memory

No one yet knows enough details about long-term memory.  It is possible that we never forget anything that gets stored there – but that it is the recall process that may be affected and may make it appear like we have forgotten.  In the elderly, long-term memories often seem to come out of nowhere – and even seem more vivid than before.  So they WERE somewhere – buried in the brain – resurrected by some association that seems random.

You need short-term memories to create long-term memories, but this can only happen when there is a process of CONSOLIDATION, stabilizing a memory “trace”:

  • Rehearsal” — Repeat, repeat, repeat!   Make it “routine”. Literally – a synapse increases in strength as an increasing number of signals are transmitted between neurons. “As such a neuronal pathway, or neural network, is traversed over and over again, an enduring pattern is engraved and neural messages are more likely to flow along such familiar paths of least resistance.”  http://www.human-memory.net/processes_consolidation.html .  If a new experience “adds” to an existing memory, the brain may “re-wire”.  In order to sustain this rewiring, the body produces new proteins to actually rebuild the synapses in the new shape – the “new” memory! If that does not happen, the memory will weaken over time.  It is important to continue to practice the “new” additions along with the old so they meld together.  So, again – simply repeat, repeat, repeat.  Be aware that sometimes, instead of adding something to an existing memory network, the new information causes interference and can be disruptive to the older memory—and end up being confusing for a child.  Perhaps for our children who are deafblind/multi-disabled it may help to let some time pass before adding the “new”.
  • And here’s something to keep in mind – SLEEP (slow-wave or deep sleep) is critical during the first few hours. Even daytime naps can help!  “Studies have shown that information is transferred between the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex during deep sleep” and it is essential for the process of consolidation.  This fact makes me wonder whether a child who cat-naps (e.g., a child with CVI) may be resting in order to consolidate something he saw or experienced.  We DO know that after a cat-nap, a child with the diagnosis of cortical visual impairment is usually more alert and ready to learn once more.
  • Associations that are meaningful – Make it functional. Doing this causes us to create a network of meaning – and therefore probably a stronger neural network.
  • Reading out loud – or even whispering or mouthing – helps with memory. We know this.  Most of us have actually done this.  I know I still do this when I am preparing for a presentation or a discussion.  The auditory connects to the visual and are better together. So if a child can read, or use another sense (e.g., vision-touch, sound-touch) – it will help consolidate a memory too.

The WHAT and HOW of long term memory:

Long term memory includes memories that reveal WHAT happened (episodic memory) – events, and facts.  These are sometimes in the form of a series of events that form the whole story, reflecting on something that actually involved the individual– “autobiographical events – times, places, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge”. http://www.human-memory.net/types_episodic.html .  So – it is really important to relate back to a SERIES, step by step perhaps instead of just one little piece out of context.  We could do this by creating little booklets that represent the whole story or the whole routine – and go from page one to the next and onwards until the end.  One can make a good case for a type of forward and backward chaining here too – with stress on a series.

Memory also includes other types of memories.  For example, Semantic memory, which is an extension of episodic memory and contains some of the HOW as well.  It is “a more structured record of facts, meanings, concepts, knowledge about the external world” – and this is knowledge separate from the personal type of knowledge or may have started out by being personal and now can be categorized as “simple knowledge” – hard facts.   It is abstract – and connected to symbolic language.

For example, a child who is deafblind may recall early experiences in a hospital – brightness, loud sounds, voices of medical personnel, the smell of disinfectant in the room or on the bedclothes – and the procedures that happen to him/her. In the background, there may also have been music or the rhythm of a specific piece of medical equipment.  All these are episodic – and may be played again and again in the child’s brain.  All these pieces, as they occur, are distributed in the brain to various areas –vision, hearing, smell, etc) but the hippocampus puts them all together into one “episode”.  Any ONE of these pieces could trigger the entire episode.  That is possibly why a child may startle or fuss suddenly – because a “trigger” brought up the whole hospital experience.  I remember traveling in a car en route to the Children’s Museum in Portland – with one of our children who is deafblind, his brother, and his mother.  As we got close to Portland, he became very fussy and made loud complaining sounds.  And suddenly as we rounded a curve on the freeway, this changed – to a big smile and happy sounds.  I had no idea why – until his mother said, “We just went by the ramp to the hospital”!  Aha!  A combination of blurry vision and muscle memory told him this.

Sometimes personal “episodic” memories and general knowledge “semantic” memories combine into an “autobiographical” memory.  The website page has an interesting sidebar that says that autobiographical memory may be linked to handedness.  It states that for someone who uses both hands (mixed handedness), autobiographical memory seems to be stronger.  They think this may be a reflection of better communication between the brain’s two hemispheres, and a better functioning corpus callosum.  So it is worth noticing if a child is right-  or left-handed, or ambidextrous.

Also relating to long-term memory is what the article calls “temporal direction” http://www.human-memory.net/types_retrospective.html .  We all look BACK to past episodes and occurrences (Retrospective Memory).  But, connected to this is what we know we have to remember in the future (Prospective memory) – or “remembering to remember”.  For instance, when we have to use cues to trigger a retrospective memory that will also help us recall what we will be doing or looking at.  A child who is deafblind definitely needs cues (as we all do!!).  Thoughts bounce between the two.  If a child has a routine of dropping off the attendance sheets in the main office at school, he already has the routine in retrospective memory.  However, he may still need those cues – to know when he is halfway to the office (humming sound or sound of water splashing from the water fountain), at the office door (cue pasted on the door jamb, or a change from floor to carpet).  It is the reason why we make lists too.  I know one youth who was deafblind who would make up his grocery list in the order of the various aisles in the store.  He used his past knowledge of WHERE to project where he needed to be in the store.

And, before concluding this blog, I’d like to share a few additional sites on memory:

http://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/memory/types-of-memory/long-term-memory     I enjoyed reading this article on long-term memory with some really simple points to remember.  Long term memory:

  • Can last for a few days or a few years
  • May not be of equal strength — some are more memorable than others; some need prompting/reminding
  • It is dynamic. We revise, add, and even blend one memory with another (therefore not always reliable!)
  • You can consciously or unconsciously remember something — riding a bike is the latter
  • Different “forms” of memory mix and mingle
  • If the brain of a person does not or cannot record sensory information clearly, memory recall is better
  • Sharpening the process of what you take in through your senses will improve memory — Does this sound familiar — “Practice, practice, practice”?

And I like the “memory mythbusters” in this article: https://elearningindustry.com/memory-types-facts-and-myths .  Read the short article!  Here are “thought ticklers” from it:

  • There are no everlasting memories
  • Memory is not infinite
  • Encoding will not reinforce our memory
  • Don’t study before you sleep
  • Memory decays with age
  • The people that learn faster are those that hardly forget
  • There is no easy way to memorize

This site has 10 memory myths: http://www.memory-improvement-tips.com/memory-myths.html?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/memory-types-facts-and-myths&utm_medium=link

This article on working memory – which it calls the “search engine” of the mind, is excellent too: http://www.cogmed.com/about-working-memory?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/memory-types-facts-and-myths&utm_medium=link

Another article on working memory from which we can derive some information for our children who are deafblind: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/5-ways-kids-use-working-memory-to-learn?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=/memory-types-facts-and-myths&utm_medium=link

This link lists 12 interesting facts about human memory – and the first one states that the human brain starts remembering –FROM THE WOMB:  http://www.theceugroup.com/12-surprising-human-memory-facts/    You can also learn some amazing “memory” facts about Alexander the Great, Mozart, Winston Churchill, and Bill Gates!

Take a look.  Happy reading!



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