When Memory Fails – Part 2

Memory Issues
& Alphabet Disorders

©Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, MCC, SCAC
When Memory Fails, Part 2


According to Psychology Today  –

Memory makes us. If we couldn’t recall the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of our everyday lives, we’d never be able to manage.

We mull over ideas in the present with our short-term (or working) memory, while we store past events and learned meanings in our long-term memory.

What Science Says

Memory is dynamic and malleable – and it doesn’t NEED to decay with age.

Through the miracles made possible through our brain’s ability to build new neural-networks — neuroplasticity! — most of us can expect to remain sharp and efficient, lean, mean learning machines throughout most of our lives.  We can, that is, as long as we take care of ourselves.

However, researchers are quick to point out, just as keeping our “physical apparatus” strong and flexible requires good nutrition and hygiene, remaining well-hydrated, and making sure that we get regular exercise so that our bodies can continue to serve us well . . .

Keeping our BRAINS supple has its own set of nutritional requirements and, to maintain peak performance, our brains need even more water than our bodies.

Were you aware that 80% of your brain is good ole’ H2O??
(In case you were wondering, 60% of the remaining 20% is FAT – which is only one reason why extremely low-fat diets may be great for helping you get into your skinny jeans, but they’re LOUSY for the health of your brain!)

The brain’s need for exercise is frequently summed up in the words of an old platitude: use it or lose it!

Related post: Images for Memory Practice
For some help strengthening visual memory,
check out this post on the blog of a TBI advocate

Losing it ANYWAY

cracked mind-300x300Okay, it’s certainly true that our ability to “remember” weakens if we don’t exercise our brains or take care of our bodies.

BUT EVEN for those of us who are reasonably fit, responsibly fed, well-watered life-long learners, there are times when information seems to fall through the cracks in our minds.

Ask any relatively good student if there was ever a time when, after studying vigorously for a particular exam – and even though they KNEW they “knew” the requested information – they couldn’t supply the answer to one of the questions.

Most students will answer your question affirmatively, yet they are members of the community that “uses it” most deliberately, nearly every single day.

That reality underscores an important point in the understanding of memory dynamics: it’s not enough to focus our energies on keeping our ability to store information strong and vital.  We need to understand how to be able to retrieve the information reliably for our “memory” to be of any use to us.

Getting things OUT

The process of memory storage is an extremely important part of the equation, of course — but if our brain’s librarian can’t locate what we ask it for when it comes time to USE the information, what good is it?

So before we explore the process of moving information into long-term memory storage, let’s take a look at the ways in which our “neuro-librarians” deliver what we’re looking for once it is stored there.

The “regurgitation” portion of the memory process is a factor of, essentially, three different processes:

  • recognition
  • recall, and
  • recall on demand

Let’s distinguish each of them before we go any further.

Remember – links on this site are dark grey to reduce distraction potential
while you’re reading. They turn red on mouseover.

Three Methods of Information Retrieval

Retrieval refers to the process of getting all of the associated pieces of a particular memory out of your brain’s storage tanks and reconsolidating them into a “whole picture” that can be accessed by your conscious awareness.

All forms of retrieval involve at least three distinct processes:

  1. The “sifting through” of all the memories you have stored in areas of the brain not immediately available in your conscious awareness.
  2. The recognition of the correct pieces of the “memory” puzzle when your brain’s “file clerk” locates them in your brain’s databanks.
  3. The movement of the appropriate information into working memory, where it can be used – in a manner it can be accessed consciously as an organic whole.

We rarely think about how amazing it is that our brain is able to do all of that and more practically immediately.

We tend to take that ability for granted until we experience the dreaded state of CRS — those so-called “senior moments” when retrieval doesn’t work as expected and we Can’t Remember Stuff.

The distinction between the three ways our brains retrieve information is important background to any explanation of what’s going on with CRS.

Let’s Play FETCH!



Recall is what is people are generally referring to when they speak of “remembering.” It is the term used to describe only one component of the process of retrieval, however.

What this particular type of retrieval involves is your brain’s ability to search its storage tanks to locate a specific word, fact, event or concept:

• whether you are able to do so immediately
• whether the item seems to “pop into your mind” after the fact, or
• whether it arrives unbidden (like that tune “you can’t get out of your head”)

The term ‘recall’ refers to the process of sifting through all the bits of data your brain has filed for long-term storage and, once your brain’s “file clerk” locates them, bringing the items to consciousness where they can be communicated or used in some other fashion.

Recall on Demand

Recall on demand” is a subset of recall that refers specifically to the ability to access the information relatively quickly — following a specific request for it.

Assuming your brain has stored the information into long-term memory to begin with, answering the question, “What is that tall man’s name?” is an example of the kind of retrieval that requires you to have rapid access which you are able to regurgitate fairly quickly.

It is still considered “recall on demand,” whether you have been asked the question by another or whether you ask it of yourself in an attempt to “remember” something.

forget_name-buttonWhat’s the difference?

The difference between recall and recall on demand is the added “spin” that the stress of the performance expectation adds to the task, and what that does to the brain.

ADDer’s (and others with Executive Functioning dysregulations and difficulties of all types) typically have more than a little bit of trouble with recall on demand.

Think about people who insist that they “can’t remember names.”

The mind-blip happens frequently with people they have met only once or twice, even when they use all the memory tips touted by the gurus.

  • Sometimes, even when they know a person well, they still experience a sort of “stutter-step” before they are able to  retrieve his or her name when needed.
  • Those who are practiced self-observers will tell you that their experience feels like a sudden mental block of some sort.

The same thing can happen with other nouns.  I call it the “hand me the doo-hickey on the thing-a-ma-bob” problem.

To the person on the spot, what seems to be going on is a sort of a temporary “amnesia” that can be amusing, yet can also be disturbing to an individual who doesn’t understand what’s going on.

  • They know that the information was “in there” somewhere, meaning that they know that they do – or did – have it in their memory banks.
  • Yet they also realize that, for some reason, it’s “right on the tip of their tongue,” but they can’t bring it to consciousness, no matter how hard they try.

The reason is “pre-frontal cortex shutdown in response to stress.”

Before we focus on that particular concept, I want to distinguish the last type of retrieval — the one that is practically universally reliable for all of us with healthy brains: recognition.


RememberRecognition, like both recall and recall on demand, refers to the same three parts of the process of “retrieving what you know,” whether or not you could have come up with the information “out of the blue.”

It involves the ability to respond “correctly” to a specific prompt.

What that means is the ability to locate the correct information because you have stored it in your memory banks — since you can, in fact, identify a person, object or concept in response to a question with a “hint” embedded — even if you would have been unable to easily present that information if you had been asked for it directly and without an additional prompt of any sort.

To most of us, recognition seems “easier” than either of the other forms of recall.

For example:

  • “Which of those men across the room is Jack?” or
    “Is that Jack
    standing next to that pretty blonde woman over there?”
  • in contrast to “What is that tall man’s name?” or
    “Who is that standing
    next to the blonde?”

If we know the man and know his name, most of us can easily point him out in response to a prompt with a “hint”.  Coming up with his name out of our very own grey matter when asked for it is a completely different matter.

Passing the Test – demonstrating knowledge

Think about how much easier it is for most of us to do well on a multiple choice exam than one that is fill-in-the-blanks, for instance.  Interesting, huh?

Doing well at all implies that we DO know the material on some level — which means that the information has been consolidated into long-term memory.

Yet the process of demonstrating that we know what we know is usually much more reliable when we are asked to recognize it rather than retrieve it.

Memory’s puzzle pieces

The fascinating thing about retrieval, however, is that it is not an all-or-nothing process.

  • Sometimes we “remember” only part of the required detail.
  • Sometimes we can “jog our memories” from what we do recall and sometimes we can’t.
  • Yet most of us are familiar with that sensation where we KNOW that we know, even when we can’t prove it by coming up with the information at the moment it is needed.

Something About Mary

NeighborhoodPicnicFor example, imagine yourself having a wonderful time at a neighborhood picnic when your good friend Beverly walks over to you and whispers,

“Which of those men over by the table
is Mary’s father?
You know, the little girl who lives in the
yellow house down the street from me?”

You may know THAT you know and still be unable, in the moment, to supply the answer.

  • Even though you realize that Mary plays with your children every once in a while, and even though you can recall having attended several school events where you met both her parents, you might not “remember” what Mary’s father really looks like
  • Or maybe you might be able to identify Mary’s father, but you can’t put Mary’s name with a face at the moment you were asked, so you can’t pair the two. You simply can’t recall which of the little girls your children play with only occasionally is named Mary.

“Sorry, can’t help you there.”

  • Or maybe you are able to recognize that you know all of the men well enough to rule a few of them out, whether or not you can recall anybody’s name — the single men, for example, and several of the fathers you know have only sons.

That may or may not jog your memory, helping you figure out which of the men is Mary’s daddy, especially if you couldn’t pair Mary’s image with her name in that particular moment.

  • You could also be a bit fuzzy about whether the remaining Dads have daughters — or you might know exactly which men have little girls, yet still be unable to recall enough specific details to answer Bev’s question.

Even if the image of Mary was clear as a bell, how would you match it to her father if you couldn’t recall exactly what he looked like?

“Still drawing a blank, sorry.”

  • In yet another scenario, you may easily recall which of the men have children and “know” the names of each of the children (as well as those of their parents), but still find yourself unable to recall, in response to Bev’s question, which little face belongs to the name “Mary,” so you still couldn’t supply the answer.  Hmmmmm . . .
  • So how do you know that you KNOW the answer, then?

And then Along Comes Mary . . .

click image for source - poster available

click image for source – poster available

When a little girl delightedly exclaims, “Daddy!” as she runs out of the house, you recognize her immediately.

You know without a doubt that the child’s name is Mary, and can easily and immediately identify her father at that point, even before she reaches him.

Everything is suddenly crystal clear even though you were unable to retrieve her name or what she looked like from “memory” only moments before she suddenly appeared.

It is also possible that you were unable to recall which man was Mary’s father until it all suddenly became clear as she wrapped her little arms around his legs — even if you also “suddenly remember” that only last month you attended little Mary’s birthday party where her father was present  — AND what you talked about for twenty minutes!!

Why IS that?  Why now?  Why not a minute ago?

Are these memory lapses dementia’s warning signs?  Is there anything we can do to improve the process of retrieving our “memories” when we want to?

Executive Processing and Recall on Demand

The key to reliable “memories” is building connections.  As your brain weaves the memory anew from the details it has previously stored, the weaver is the Pre-Frontal Cortex, that part of your brain right behind your forehead that is the seat of what we call your Executive Functions.

“What’s interesting about the human brain is that we have multiple memory systems,” explains David Sweatt, PhD, chairman of the neurobiology department at University of Alabama Birmingham, who researches memory and its processes.

“It allows a lot of parallel processing, in terms of learning and remembering different kinds of actions and information . . . involving lots of complicated interactive circuits.”

Our ability to store moments in our lives, facts, and the ability to navigate reliably are the newest types of human memory systems, easily disrupted because of the sheer number of those interactive circuits required to RE-consolidate all the details into a coherent whole.

Recently absorbed information (like what Mary’s father looks like, in our example above, or something like your next appointment with your psychopharm) is first stored in short term memory.

It can burn away like fog in the morning if it’s not hustled along into working memory, which holds information long enough for us to “use it before we lose it” — approximately thirty minutes.

In articles to come, I will reveal some of the keys to consolidating those memories – to improving the odds of your brain making the “decision to store” the information in your long-term memory. But that’s only part of the story.

Lila Davachi, PhD, director of the Learning and Memory Lab at New York University, reminds us that “our memories are constantly in a state of flux.  Even consolidated memories are still malleable once they are retrieved or reminded.”

So, articles to come will also take a look at how to keep those memories from being “disrupted” during the retrieval process, when they are RE-consolidated back into working memory.

Stay tuned. There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

As always, if you want notification of new articles in the Memory Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

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Click HERE for Linklist of the Articles about ADD/EFD and Memory

You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
– and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves –

Related articles right here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(in case you missed them above or below)

Articles for background and context:

Related Articles ’round the ‘net

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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  8. When I was growing up I imagined that my head was full of ants and lots of boxes (some extremely dusty). So, if I wanted to remember something I had to send an ant off to find it, and if it took a little longer to ‘remember’ it was because the ant had to look through a lot of boxes! Imagination of kids eh? 🙂

    On a more recent note, I was facilitating a session at a conference a year or so ago, and one of the key things the whole session hinged on was Bloom’s revised taxonomy. And it popped out of my head at just the moment when I needed it! Usually, I can work around / substitute words and terms I forget in the heat of the moment, but this wasn’t one of them. Luckily the folks attending the session guessed what I was talking about, and shouted out the ‘answer’ 😛 Now, I have an embarrassing memory on which to hang Bloom’s revised taxonomy, and am likely to never forget it – talk about creating connections.

    I am always fascinated by the way my brain forms memories. So, while I may not be able to remember a person’s name (as you talk about in your article), I can recall specific podcasts -which I listen to while I am running – and where I listened to them (I travel a fair bit for work)…down to the specifics of streets, how much traffic there was, season, weather, and often smells. The two seem to be connected such that when I run down the same street, I remember the podcast, or when I listen to the podcast I can (in technicolour) ‘see’ the place.

    Thanks as always for writing articles that help join the dots. You’re a gem. xxx


  9. Very interesting and useful Article… Thank you for sharing.


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