Psychopathologies of memory: characteristics, types and symptoms

The human being is made up of memories. What we are is nothing more than what we are able to remember and integrate, the experiences that were lived in the past and defined us. That is why memory is such an important and valuable cognitive function.

Some circumstances of life, from the uncontrollable passage of time to the emergence of diseases or the emergence of accidents of various kinds, may compromise the way in which it is expressed temporarily or permanently.

In this article we will address the phenomenon of memory psychopathologies , that is, the ways in which it can be altered (both in its ability to retrieve pieces of information and in any other of its properties).

We will also reserve a space for other mnesic phenomena that may occur in the general population, and that do not suggest any underlying disorder.

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Psychopathologies of memory

There are many diseases and situations that can condition the functioning of memory, since it is a widely distributed dimension in the brain parenchyma . In this article we will delve into the different forms of amnesia and anomalies of memory or recognition, that is, in the psychopathologies of memory.

1. Amnesias

The term “amnesia”, of Greek origin (and that could be translated as “forgetfulness”), subsumes an extensive group of memory disorders; heterogeneous as regards its origin, prognosis and clinical expression . Then he will delve into each of them.

1.1. Retrograde amnesia

Retrograde amnesia is, perhaps, the best known memory problem. It is described as a specific difficulty in evoking events from the past, but the ability to create new memories remains unchanged .

It mainly affects the episodic information, or what is the same, the facts lived (while maintaining the semantics, the procedural, etc.). It is usually one of the multiple consequences derived from brain trauma, or from dementia diseases that affect large regions of the nervous system.

1.2. Anterograde amnesia

Anterograde amnesia is a compromise of memory that is characterized by the difficulty or impossibility of generating new memories from a specific moment . Thus, what is altered is consolidation, or the process that transfers information from the short-term warehouse to the long-term warehouse (where it is fixed for a longer time). The memory of the past remains intact.

Brain lesions in hippocampal structures have been consistently associated with these types of problems, as well as drug or drug abuse (alcohol, benzodiazepines, etc.).

1.3. Transient Global Amnesia

These are acute episodes in which who suffers from this problem expresses the difficulty of remembering events beyond the last ones that occurred in his life ; although perception, attention and other cognitive processes are maintained at their baseline level of functioning.

Access to the most distant memories is also often affected; but not the name, identity, provenance or other basic and consolidated information in deep strata of self-definition (as well as the ability to carry out actions over which he had control).

The person may be emotionally affected, as he is aware of the deficit that grips him. It is particularly suggestive of this problem the perseverance in the acts and the questions that are asked to the people who are around, because the answer is almost immediately forgotten. The episode usually resolves within a few hours (less than 24), and the underlying cause remains largely unknown.

1.4. Lacunar Amnesia

Lacunar amnesia describes the impossibility of accessing information about specific events or periods , with very specific temporal coordinates. The person could remember everything that happened both before and after the events, but never what happened during them. It is related to the punctual laxity of the level of attention or to altered states of consciousness (such as coma), but it is also common in strokes and trauma.

1.5. Posttraumatic Amnesia

Posttraumatic amnesia has an obvious etiology: a blow to the head. Although it can manifest itself in different ways, and have a clinical presentation similar to that described in the antegrade / retrograde, it has the peculiarity of being a reliable indicator of the severity of the trauma suffered . In mild cases it can last for just a few minutes, while in severe cases (more than one day) it can become permanent.

1.6. Functional amnesia

Functional amnesia describes any alteration of memory for which no organic cause can be filmed after carrying out all types of examinations , among which neuroimaging tests stand out. On the other hand, a thorough assessment of the circumstances in which it develops does allow it to be associated with events of high emotional load, which would be erected as its most probable cause. One of the most common cases is post-traumatic stress, although it can also be observed in dissociative disorders (from leakage to dissociative identity).

1.7. Child amnesia

Childhood amnesia is one whose presence is natural during childhood, as a result of incomplete neurological development. The poor maturation of the hippocampus is involved in the phenomenon , which prevents a formation of declarative memories.

Despite this circumstance, the early development of the amygdala does facilitate the articulation of an emotional imprint for these events, although during adulthood they cannot be described using exact words. It is for this reason that, although we cannot remember what happened during the first years, it can affect us emotionally.

2. Memory abnormalities

Memory abnormalities are common in the general population, although some of them are manifested preferentially under the influence of the consumption of certain substances or of a pathology of the central nervous system. In the following lines we will explore what they are and what they may be due to.

2.1. Incomplete personal memory

This phenomenon occurs at the moment we agree with a person with whom we have already done in the past, and although we are aware of such nuance, we cannot identify what we know of (or where). In this case a memory is produced, although attenuated and incomplete, since a part of the information is not available. It is a common experience that is associated with the absence of contextual clues that facilitate the process, that is, the fact of finding the person in an unusual space (different from the one in which we usually place it).

2.2. Feeling of knowing

It is a feeling (it touches the certainty) that we have knowledge about a specific event , or about a term, although we eventually fail to try to prove them. It happens especially with words or concepts, which although they are familiar when we read or hear about them, we cannot evoke their exact meaning. This produces an imprecise recognition, motivated by the morphological kinship of two terms: one really known and one that is believed to know.

2.3. Tip of the tongue

The phenomenon of the tip of the tongue (also known as Top of Tongue or simply TOT) describes the uncomfortable sensation that arises when we are unable to pronounce a specific word, despite knowing it and wishing to use it in the context of some conversation . This phenomenon is more frequent in terms of rare use, although it also occurs in everyday ones, and tends to be exacerbated under conditions of fatigue or stress. It may be more common, too, as the years go by.

Often the person comes to remember some of the properties of the word he intends to use, such as the beginning or the end, and tries to carry out a subvocalization with the purpose of “finding it”. Paradoxically, this effort often inhibits the irruption of such a long-awaited word, since it is a reality that is very often revealed only by stopping thinking about it.

2.4. Temporary lagoon

Temporary gaps are moments of life in which, due to a significant lack of attention, we have not been able to elaborate an evocable memory of what happened. It can happen while performing an automated activity by habit (driving, cooking, etc.), so that its development would take place while we are thinking about other things, and we do not get to form memories about what happened “in the meantime “. It is a kind of self-absorption or even distraction, in which time consciousness is lost.

2.5 Task Verification

Some tasks are carried out in such a routine way that, although attention has been paid while they were being done, it can be difficult to discriminate whether they were actually carried out or not. This is so because its repetition exerts an interference effect, and the person manifests difficulty in identifying if the memory that is in his “head” corresponds to this last occasion or if it is actually the mark of a previous day . The “problem” leads to constant checking of the action (close a door, turn off the stove, etc.).

2.6. Pseudomemory

The pseudomemory is a generic category that includes all those processes in which a false or inaccurate memory is evoked. The most frequent of these is collusion , which consists in the “fabrication” of false memories to fill in the empty spaces of those who (for various reasons) cannot evoke the totality of any lived episode. The purpose here is, therefore, to give meaning to an experience that lacks it because of its incompleteness, like a puzzle that lacks key pieces to solve it.

Another example is fantastic pseudology. In this case, false memories are created deliberately, but that cannot be explained by mnesic gaps, but by an unresolved affective need . It would seek to generate “events” consistent with the desire to feel in one way or another, which would tend to accentuate their intensity in the event that the interlocutor showed interest in them (until becoming acts completely impossible and really fanciful).

Finally, many authors include delirious memories in this category , through which the person is reminiscent of a past that never took place. However, such a construction makes sense because it links the experience of the present (distorted by delirium) with the past, thus drawing a time line consistent with the content of current thoughts and perceptions.

3. Recognition anomalies

Recognition anomalies are errors in the way in which a memory or a stimulus located in the present is processed, and that could be summarized as false positive acknowledgments (feeling that one is “remembering” a fact that is being lived for the first time) or false negative acknowledgments (perception that something previously lived arises before our eyes as totally new).

3.1. Deja vu

Dejà vu is a well-known sensation, since practically all of us have been able to live it on occasion. It is about the perception that a really new situation is polished by a great familiarity , as if it were not the first time that it is traveled by her. In a colloquial language, it tends to express itself as “this sounds to me” or “I have been here.” Over the years numerous hypotheses have been postulated to explain it, from spiritual to properly scientific, although the reason why it occurs is not yet clear.

In recent times , their attendance has been highlighted together with psychiatric disorders , mainly depersonalization, as well as in the context of epilepsy or lesions of the temporal cortex . In the case of people without pathology, it is much shorter and less intense.

Finally, there are many people who believe in the possibility that the experience of dejà vu would allow them to predict particular events that could take place while unfolding, a distorted belief that has been coined under the heading of “pseudo-presence”.

  • You may be interested: ” Déjà Vu: the strange feeling of living something already lived before

3.2. Jamais vu

The jamais vu is the mirror of the dejà vu, so that they could be understood as opposites. In the case at hand, the person faces a situation that had already lived at least once, but does not perceive familiarity at all . Thus, although he is aware of an identical or very similar previous experience, he values ​​the fact as if it were completely new. It is less common than dejà vu, and it can happen to people who are sensitive to slight spatial modifications that take place in familiar environments (diluting as quickly as it takes to identify the change).

3.3. Cryptomnesia

Cryptomnesia consists in the firm belief that a memory is not such, but that it is an original production. In this way, there is a risk of adopting other people’s ideas or reflections , since their access to memory lacks familiarity and / or recognition. It is common in scientific and artistic fields, and has motivated over the years countless lawsuits for plagiarism or for improper use of intellectual property.


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