Our memories make up who we are and where we have been. Memory involves recalling or recognizing things or ideas, but it is also a vital component of learning new things. In fact, we learn more easily when we connect novel things to our existing memories. Thus, memory is not only the key to recalling our past, but it also creates our future path through learning.
The three steps of the memory process include: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding is the process of getting information into the system. As we age, most of us become less efficient in encoding new information. Storage is the manner in which information is represented and kept in the brain, and retrieval refers to the process of getting information back out and in a useful form. Older adults generally take longer than younger adults to search and retrieve their memories. Our memory system also has three ‘storehouses’; sensory memory, working memory, and long term memory. Sensory memory temporarily registers nearly all incoming information received through our senses. However, these memories fade almost immediately if they are not processed. Working memory includes the active processes and structures involved in holding information in the mind and simultaneously using that information. Research suggests that we can improve our working memory throughout our lives. Generally, information must go through our working memory in order to reach our long term memory. Long term memory refers to the ability to remember extensive amounts of information that may have occurred in the past anywhere from a few seconds to a few decades ago.
Maintaining attention as sensory information flows in is one of the most important tasks that our brain performs. Our ability to process information, or pay attention, involves both processing speed and processing resources. Processing speed is related to our working memory capacity and processing resources can be anything that improves our ability to focus on the task at hand. In our busy world, we must divide our attention constantly. Generally, we are not very good at multi-tasking as far as our attention is concerned. We are much more efficient and effective when we sustain our attention by focusing on fewer things at a time.
Language allows us to communicate our thoughts and feelings to those around us. Our ability to communicate through language is also a major survival mechanism for all humans. One way to view language is through the semantic system and the phonological system. The semantic system governs the meaning of words and rules of grammar. The phonological system pertains to word sounds and spelling. These two systems are not housed in one area, but are spread out throughout our brains. Our ability to understand what we hear or read and produce speech is dependent upon our working memory, our processing speed, and our ability to maintain focused attention.
Our ability to process or understand the information we receive through our senses impacts how fast we can respond. As we age, our brain’s ‘processing speed’ slows down. In many areas of life, this slowing does not make that much of a difference. However, in tasks that require faster thinking that may involve our safety, this can be a problem. For example, a slower reaction time when driving could result in more accidents.
Our ability to navigate three-dimensional space is vital in our daily life. Driving, engaging in many forms of exercise, and even walking around the block requires good visual and spatial skills. When our vision begins to fail us, we can usually get corrective lenses and continue engaging in our daily tasks. When our spatial sense begins to fail us, it may be a sign of a greater problem. Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease commonly lose their spatial sense and become easily lost and confused in familiar surroundings. In that case, the brain can no longer make sense of the visual cues that we normally rely upon to guide us.
Problem Solving Skills
Problem solving skills (also known as executive functioning) cover a range of behaviors we utilize in daily life. For example, planning out a grocery list, organizing items in a drawer, scheduling an appointment, solving a complex problem or puzzle, and even choosing not to have that enticing candy bar all require strong problem solving abilities. Our brain’s ‘mini-executive’ assists us in organizing, planning, carrying out our plans, and inhibiting tempting behaviors that may not benefit us in the long run.