Memory problems are probably the most common issues that patients struggle with after brain injury.
Fortunately, there are many strategies you can use to make your memory more efficient.
You’re about to learn how a brain injury affects memory, plus some of the best memory strategies that can boost your cognitive skills.
Let’s get started.
How Brain Injury Affects Memory
Memory is a complex skill that involves multiple areas of the brain. Some prominent parts of the brain that play a role in memory include:
- The prefrontal cortex
- The hippocampus
- The amygdala
- The basal ganglia
If any of these areas become damaged, memory skills can be lost.
There are many types of memory loss that a person can experience after brain injury. The most common type is anterograde amnesia, which affects the ability to form new long-term and short-term memories.
Long-term memory is the type of memory that allows you to store information for an extended period. Short-term memory, on the other hand, refers to a person’s ability to hold information for about 30 seconds.
In order to remember anything, your short-term memories must be encoded into long-term memories. It is this process that most brain injury patients struggle with.
Using Brain Injury Memory Strategies
Most brain injury memory strategies, therefore, are aimed at helping you increase your ability to transfer short-term memories into long-term memory.
The two key ingredients of any effective memory strategy are:
- Something vivid or surprising that stimulates your brain in a different way
If you can get your brain excited and repeat the information over and over, you’ll find your memory problems much easier to manage.
The following are some helpful memory strategies you can start using today:
One of the best brain injury memory strategies to use is association.
If you ever took piano lessons, you might still remember the notes of the musical scale by remembering the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”
That technique is called a mnemonic, and it works by using the first letter of a word to remind you of a different word.
While that might not sound like it would help, making odd connections like that is actually the natural way your brain remembers things.
2. Vivid Imagery
Unfortunately, mnemonics aren’t always helpful when you’re trying to remember things like an appointment, for example.
But according to researchers on memory, associations can still help if you connect a fact with something concrete and vivid.
For example, if you need to remember that your doctor’s appointment is at 4 P.M, here are some tricks you can use:
- You can remember that the car you will drive to the doctor’s office has four wheels, which is what time you need to be there.
- You can shorten “doctor” to the word “doc” which rhymes with “dog” which has four legs, etc…
- You could even imagine your doctor is a dog driving a car with four wheels.
The more surprising the image you use, the easier it will be for your brain to remember.
These kinds of associations can be hard to do at first, but as you practice they will become second nature.
Music therapy has many cognitive benefits for brain injury patients, but perhaps its most powerful benefit is how it boosts memory.
Therefore, if you want to remember something important, try singing it to the tune of your favorite song. You might be surprised by how much more you can memorize.
4. Expanded Rehearsal
Repetition is the secret to learning almost anything. The more you repeat something, the more you reinforce the neural pathways in your brain that allow you to retrieve it.
However, you can’t just repeat something a few times and expect to recall it perfectly. Instead, you must space your repetition. Memory experts call this process expanded rehearsal.
One of the best ways to practice expanded rehearsal is to create some flashcards with whatever information you’re trying to learn.
If you remember the info clearly, wait two minutes, and then quiz yourself. If you get it right again, wait 5 minutes, then 10 minutes etc…
The point is to keep challenging yourself until the memory is fully encoded into your long-term memory.
5. Errorless Learning
Most people learn through their mistakes. If they do an activity the wrong way, they will remember their mistake and adjust their actions accordingly.
But because brain injury impairs memory, most TBI patients cannot learn things that way. Instead, they will continue making the same mistakes because they do not remember ever making them in the first place.
That’s why speech therapists recommend using a technique called “errorless learning.” This is a great system for patients with severe memory impairments who cannot practice memory strategies on their own.
Errorless learning will require help from a caregiver or a loved one. The goal is to guide the brain-injured person through a task correctly several times until they can remember it.
The following are some tips caregivers can use as part of an errorless learning program.
- Clarify. Make sure the person understands what you expect from them.
- Complete tasks together. Start out by doing a task with the person, then gradually decrease the amount of help you give.
- Break things down. Break the task or information down into smaller parts and teach the parts separately.
- Encourage repetition. Ask the person to repeat the answer you give them several times. For example, if they need to remember an appointment, tell them “you have an appointment at noon.” Then have them repeat that information.
Errorless learning can be difficult to practice without training. A speech therapist can teach you this technique so you can practice it with your loved one at home.
If you want to see errorless learning in action, check out this video demonstration:
External Memory Strategies
The above strategies all focused on improving memory function. But there are also compensatory strategies you can use to help you remember.
The following are some ideas to help you remember important things:
- Write essential information on a whiteboard you can easily see
- Create a “memory station” where you keep important objects such as keys, wallets, or glasses
- Label cupboards and drawers so you can remember what is inside
- Set reminders and alarms on your phone to help you remember appointments
- Use recording devices or journals
Most of these techniques make you rely on your memory less by using external aids. While these can be helpful, try not to use them exclusively. After all, the only way to improve your memory is to exercise it frequently.
You can also make use of cognitive therapy apps which can help you practice dozens of memory exercises every day. The more frequently you practice these memory strategies, the more you will activate your brain’s neuroplasticity and hopefully start to see improvements.
Improving Memory After Brain Injury
Memory skills are crucial for regaining independence after brain injury. Fortunately, it is possible to improve your memory with the right techniques.
As with everything related to brain injury recovery, consistency is key. Therefore, try to practice these strategies and others every day.