“Have I just brushed my teeth or not…?”: Dyspraxia and Memory
Memory, in particular short-term memory, is something that dyspraxia can affect. This is a particular area where dyspraxia and dyslexia are closely linked, along with organisation (which is also closely linked to memory).
Seeing as I’ve learnt a little bit about the processes of memory at university (I’m studying psychology), I thought I would use a little bit of what I’ve learnt (with the help of my textbooks) for this blog. It’ll probably be a useful refresher for me for my next year of university too!
So short term memory, as the name suggests, refers to being able to retain information over a short period of time – roughly 15 seconds. This video provides a really useful overview of what short term memory is and how it can affect dyslexics (the same applies to dyspraxics too):
I also recommend you have a read of this blog post too: https://stormclear.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/the-white-board-and-the-etch-a-sketch/. It gives a great anaology of how dyspraxia can affect short term memory.
Being given directions is a typical example of something that can be difficult when you struggle with short-term memory. I haven’t actually been in a situation on my own where I’ve had to ask for directions (yet!) but whenever I’ve been with someone else and we’ve asked someone I’ve never remembered them! I’m okay with the first couple, but then after that they all just seem to jump out of order and disappear…
At university one of the things we learnt about is the serial position effect, which states that it’s the items at the beginning of the list and at the end of the list that are most likely to be recalled – the items in the middle of the list are most likely to be forgotten. This is because the items at the beginning of the list have been rehearsed over and over, so they have had the time to be transferred into long term memory. Whereas the items at the end of the list are so recent that they are still in short term memory (although I’m not sure they’d still be in mine!) Although we didn’t learn specifically about dyspraxia and memory, I do wonder whether this effect is still found in people with dyspraxia due to our difficulties with short term memory. I think maybe we would be more likely to remember items at the beginning of the list due to the fact that they are in our long term memory which we can rely on a bit better than our short term memory (I’ll go into a bit more detail about that later on in this post)!
The same happened at school too with completely forgetting a list of instructions. In science lessons at GCSE we would do practicals and they would sometimes decide it was a good idea to give us the instructions verbally. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and always had to ask the person I was working with – I’m so glad we worked in pairs and not on our own! Even though they often gave a demonstration so there was the visual information too, it was just attempting to remember it that was hard!
More every-day things that it can affect are asking people whether they would like a tea or coffee. In my house it’s only me and my dad that drink tea/coffee, as my brother doesn’t, but I think I’d find it difficult in a situation where there were more people to remember for! I do sometimes find myself having to ask my Dad, “Was it tea or coffee you wanted?” What does help, though, although it sounds quite random is the fact that my Dad uses different mugs for tea and coffee. This means I only need to remember what it is he wanted from the time I ask him until the time I get his mug out the cupboard – there, your method has it’s usefulness Dad! I have actually seen mugs that you can get that you can write on – that might be useful for someone who has lots of people who drink tea/coffee in their household!
I quite often even forget whether I have just done something or not. I’ll go upstairs and come back down and wonder if I did actually just turn the hot water on or not, or I’ll brush my teeth and a few seconds later wonder if I’ve actually brushed them or not. And then there’s the typical walking into a room and forgetting what you’ve walked in there for, or being midway through a conversation and forgetting what you were talking about. I know those last two things happen to everyone anyway, but they happen much more often when you’re dyspraxic!
As I briefly mentioned earlier, memory is closely linked to organisation. So although organisation is something itself that dyspraxics/dyslexics can struggle with, short term memory difficulties can impact on this even further. For example, I need to set reminders on my phone to remember to do things – but I’ll often say I’ll set a reminder, and then if I don’t do it instantly that second I’ll often forget to set it! I also have a tendency to, when the reminder does come up (if I’ve actually remembered to set it), turn off the reminder while I quickly do something else. Even if it’s just a few seconds that have been taken up I will usually completely forget about the reminder! For this reason I usually just use checklists on my phone – as they’re the first thing that come up when I unlock my phone and I’ve got into the routine of making sure I keep checking them.
Ironically, I literally have just thought of something else to write, but decided to finish the sentence I was writing first without writing the idea down and I have now forgotten it! Anyway, hopefully I’ll remember it at some point or I’ll come up with the same ‘idea’ again…
I also find that due to my difficulties with short-term memory I often end up missing out stages of tasks, either because I can’t remember what I’ve just done in the previous stage or just because it takes that little bit longer to register in my memory that I haven’t done a particular thing. For example there’s been times before where I’ve walked out of the bathroom or got into bed and suddenly realised that I haven’t brushed my teeth! I’ve even managed to make a sandwich and have forgotten to put the butter in! Or I’ve forgotten to actually put the tea bag in the tea or the coffee in the coffee – that usually happens when I do it in a different order to normal (change in routine has a big impact on memory for me!)
It seems as though one of the main things for me that affects my memory is distraction – I do get quite easily distracted too being dyspraxic! I learnt about an interesting study where participants who had slept after learning something (most likely a list of words) remembered more than participants who stayed awake. This was explained as being due to the fact that the participants who stayed awake had their memories displaced by other items so they have more difficulty remembering what they had previously learnt.
Despite the difficulties I have with short term memory, I bizarrely did well when tested on it! I took part in a study at university which studied participants with dyslexia or dyspraxia. There were all sorts of tests involved – a few of them were on memory. One of them was auditory memory, where a list of numbers would be read out loud and I would have to repeat them back in order. At another stage I had to repeat them backwards. The list of numbers was getting longer and longer and the person said to me that the reason it was going on for so long was because I was really good at it! I was surprised at that seeing as I struggle with my short term memory in other situations. I think, though, it was because I was in a test environment and all I had to think about was remembering those numbers. There was nothing else to distract me, all my attention was focused on remembering those numbers so I was able to rehearse them in my head over and over again. That test definitely wasn’t representative of my short term memory in other situations…
Long term memory, on the other hand, is often a strength of many dyspraxics! Again, as the name suggests, it refers to being able to maintain information over a long period of time – this could be hours, days, weeks or even longer. There are three types of long term memory: procedural memory, semantic memory and episodic memory.
Procedural memory stores ‘how-to’ information – for example how to play the piano, or ride a bike. It’s the information we retrieve automatically without even thinking about it. Semantic memory stores facts and concepts, our general knowledge of the world. Whilst we don’t retrieve this information automatically, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to retrieve it. Lastly, episodic memory stores events and experiences, our personal experiences. This information isn’t retrieved automatically and it takes a higher amount of effort to retrieve it in comparison to semantic memory.
From my personal experience, and from what I’ve heard from others with dyspraxia, it is our episodic memory that is our strength. It’ll often be the really random information I’ll remember, unimportant parts of conversations from years ago, including details such as exactly where the conversation took place too. One example I remember is when I was in year 7 one of my friends was telling me about an argument she had with another friend – I even remember where we were walking at the time. The funny thing is my friend doesn’t actually remember it herself!
Now obviously there are certain things from ages ago that we still forget, we don’t have some sort of superhuman brain that makes us remember everything. But, being dyspraxic means that our long term memory, our episodic memory in particular, does seem to be better than average.
I would love to know why this actually is, what specific part of our brain makes it better than average. Why does our long term memory make up for our short term memory? And how?
But as this is an area that doesn’t seem to have been researched (as far as I’m aware), the answer to these questions remains unknown. I do wonder though whether it is to do with the fact that episodic memory works on a subconscious level, it’s done automatically. Maybe because we’re often more sensitive to our surroundings (in terms of both sensory & emotional sensitivity) the information gets encoded in our brains in some sort of more detailed way than it does for neurotypical people. Although I mentioned earlier that it takes a higher amount of effort to retrieve episodic memories, maybe for dyspraxics this doesn’t make so much of a difference as our problems may lie less in the retrieval aspect and more in the encoding aspect (this is just me wondering by the way – no scientific evidence here!).
This could explain why our long term memory is strongest in the area of episodic memories. If we take an example of a procedural memory, such as riding a bike, this is a physical task so it takes us dyspraxics a lot more effort to be able to store this in our memories. Our brain may send the incorrect signals to our bodies more often, so it takes us a longer amount of time to get the right movements enough times for this to be encoded in our brains.
The other type of memory, semantic memory, contains facts and concepts – relating a lot to education. In order to remember this information we need to be able to store the information in our short term memory in the first place (models of memory suggest that we initially store information in our short term memory and it is transferred into our long term memory). If the particular challenge we have as dyspraxics is getting the information into our short term memory then this makes it harder to learn that information, hence the reason it takes us a lot longer to learn things as we have to spend a lot more time and effort to get it into our short term memories. However, I do believe that once we have that information stored in our long term memory, retrieving it isn’t so much of a problem (well, not until it comes to organising our ideas and getting it down on paper!) So just beause we may have a ‘good long term memory’ that doesn’t necessarily make exams easy, as we have to work a lot harder to get that information into our memory in the first place!
I would love it if there was research done in these areas into the future, it would be fascinating to find out more about how our dyspraxic brains actually work!