Memory is a marvel of human biology essential to mankind’s way of life and survival, but so complex that it is not yet fully understood. As a physiological process, the storing and retrieval of information is imperfect and thus vulnerable to certain destructive forces (or memory killers). These forces can be both internal and external, and can effect any area of the memory: sensory, short-term or long-term.
Although most are unaware of the fact, smoking cigarettes is a memory killer. Several studies have indicated that smokers, particularly middle-aged and elderly, show increased decline in both memory and general cognitive ability in comparison to non-smokers. Though it’s sometimes difficult to count out other factors of a smoker’s lifestyle that may be meddling with the mind, such as a lack of physical activity, the evidence against smoking still looks pretty convincing. Bottom line: Butt out! And lay off the marijuana too (if you value your short-term memory, that is).
Like any finely tuned motor, your brain needs fuel, specifically glucose. If you’re short on fuel, you’ll be short on brain power. However, to most, this comes as no surprise; we’ve all felt that dense and foggy feeling when we’re overtired or overly hungry. Aside from general malnutrition, however, a more serious disorder results in those individuals short on thiamine (vitamin B1): Korsakoff’s syndrome. Caused most often by chronic alcoholism or malnutrition, Korsakoff’s syndrome can lead to severe retrogade and anterograde amnesia including confabulation (a fabulous word that describes a situation where invented memories are regarded as true due to gaps in memory from blackouts).
Herpes is just one of several health conditions or disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or depression) that can be real memory killers. While most cases of herpes won’t make you forget the name of your coworker or where you left your keys, a more serious form of infection known as herpes simplex encephalitis can cause severe memory loss, sometimes as a first warning sign followed by a host of other deadly symptoms. Herpes encephalitis refers to an inflammation of the brain, and it’s one of the most severe infections of the human central nervous system. Thankfully, this scare is rather rare, arising only if and when the herpes virus finds its way to the human brain through nerves of the face.
In more ways than one, your college days come back to haunt you — this time as a memory killer. While it’s no big secret that one night of drinking causes acute memory loss (“blacking out,” as it is better known), binge drinking, on the other hand, appears to detriment everyday memory in young adults and may even have an increasing effect in later adulthood. Although longer study and follow-up is needed to fully understand the details, the message is still pretty clear: If you drink, don’t binge.
Things done under hypnosis tend to be forgotten. It’s really as simple as that. This phenomenon is known as post-hypnotic amnesia, and it is said to only occur in individuals who are preconditioned to the idea that they will forget all events that occur under hypnosis. The effect, however, is only temporary, as most events can be recalled once a specific cue is given. Conversely, hypnosis can sometimes be used to retrieve memories for individuals who are in need of exposing a repressed or forgotten memory. Whether you view hypnosis as hocus-pocus, the fact is that someday soon the technology may exist to tap into the brain and retrieve memories without the need for hypnosis.
The whole foundation of psychoanalysis rests on the idea that when something shocking happens, the mind grabs hold of the memory and forces it to inaccessible corners. While there’s no denying that stressful events can lead to memory repression, it’s the idea that a repressed memory is authentic that has huge implications, particularly legal ones. In fact, memory repression is so hotly disputed that the American Psychology Association currently contends that it is not possible to distinguish a repressed memory from a fake memory without some form of corroborating evidence.