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What is memory?

Memory is your brain's ability to store information and to find it again later. Memory is divided into:

  • Short-term memory: deals with information that is only kept for the length of time you need it. For example, remembering a phone number for long enough to dial it
  • Long-term memory: deals with any information that is kept for longer than this

"I have found that epilepsy really affects my short-term memory. I can remember things from years ago, but I can't remember what someone told me five minutes ago."

Recording the memory in the first place is called encoding. The information is then passed from short-term to long-term memory for storage. Long-term memory is divided into three types:

  • Procedural memory: Activities which are carried out almost without thinking, for example, riding a bike
  • Semantic memory: Knowledge we have learnt but we are not sure when, for example, capital cities
  • Episodic memory: Personal memories of everyday life

"My long term memory is very much affected. Some pretty important events in my life are either completely gone, or I only remember part of them."

Memory can also be divided into verbal and visual:

  • Verbal memory is your ability to remember things you have heard or read, for example words and sounds
  • Visual memory is your ability to remember things you have seen, for example pictures and faces

When we want to remember something, the information we need is brought back from long-term memory to short-term memory. This is called retrieval.

If we have forgotten something it could be due to problems with:

  • Recording the memory in the first place (encoding)
  • The storing of the memory (storage)
  • Recovering the memory from long-term memory (retrieval)

What causes memory problems?

Everybody can have minor lapses in memory from time to time. Things that can make this more common include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling unwell
  • Feeling stressed or anxious
  • Trying to concentrate on lots of things at once

Also, as we get older, lapses in memory become more common. But sometimes memory problems can be more severe or last for much longer than normal. Some possible reasons for this could include dementia, head injury, stroke or a medical condition such as epilepsy.

"My memory can be so bad that I might be deep in conversation, stop for one second, and completely forget what I was talking about."

How are memory problems assessed?

If you are having problems with your memory, your doctor may suggest carrying out a neuropsychological assessment. Neuropsychological simply means looking at the processes that the brain carries out, one of which is memory. This assessment aims to get an accurate idea of how well your memory is working and is carried out by a psychologist. The assessment will look at your ability to remember pictures, stories and numbers. Through looking at these areas, the psychologist will be able to find out where your memory difficulties lie. They can then suggest what strategies might be most helpful for dealing with your memory problems.

Find out more about epilepsy and memory

Read our hints and tips for coping with memory problems

Code: 
B099.03

Our thanks

This information has been adapted from the booklet Memory and epilepsy, produced by Epilepsy Action and written by Professor Gus Baker and colleagues at the University of Liverpool. It has been updated by Epilepsy Action’s advice and information team, with input from people living with epilepsy. Download the Memory and epilepsy booklet.

This information has been produced under the terms of The Information Standard.

  • Updated November 2015
    To be reviewed August 2018

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