Human beings are made up of memories. What we are is nothing more than what we are capable of remembering and integrating, the experiences that were lived in the past and defined us. That is why memory is such an important and valuable cognitive function.

Certain circumstances in life, from the irrepressible passage of time to the appearance of illnesses or the outbreak of accidents of various kinds, can compromise the way in which life is expressed temporarily or permanently.

In this article we will deal with the phenomenon of memory psychopathologies , that is, the ways in which memory can be altered (both in its capacity to recover pieces of information and in any other of its properties).

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

Psychopathologies of memory

There are many diseases and situations that can condition the functioning of the 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 the anomalies of memory or recognition, that is, the psychopathologies of memory.

1. Amnesias

The term “amnesia”, of Greek origin (and which could be translated as “oblivion”), subsumes an extensive group of memory disorders; heterogeneous in terms of their origin, prognosis and clinical expression . Each of these will be discussed in more detail below.

Retrograde amnesia

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

It affects above all the episodic information, or what is the same, the facts experienced (while maintaining the semantics, the procedural, etc.). It is often one of the many consequences of brain trauma, or of dementia affecting large regions of the nervous system.

1.2. Antegrade amnesia

Antegrade 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 the consolidation, or the process that transfers information from the short-term store to the long-term store (where it remains fixed for longer). The memory of the past remains intact.

Brain injuries in the hippocampal structures have been consistently associated with this type of problem, as well as drug abuse or abuse of drugs (alcohol, benzodiazepines, etc.).

Transitional global amnesia

These are acute episodes in which the person suffering from this problem expresses the difficulty of remembering events beyond the last ones that occurred in his/her life ; although perception, attention and the rest of the cognitive processes remain at their basal level of functioning.

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

The person may be emotionally affected, as he or she is aware of the deficit that is holding him or her back. The persistence of the acts and questions asked to the people around is particularly suggestive of this problem, since the answer is forgotten almost immediately. The episode is usually resolved 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 time coordinates. The person could remember everything that happened both before and after the events, but never what happened during them. It is related to 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. Post-traumatic amnesia

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

1.6. Functional Amnesia

Functional amnesia describes any alteration of memory for which no organic cause can be identified after carrying out all kinds of examinations , among which neuroimaging tests stand out. On the other hand, a careful assessment of the circumstances in which it develops does allow it to be associated with highly emotional events, which would be its most likely cause. One of the most common cases is that of post-traumatic stress, although it can also be seen in dissociative disorders (from flight to dissociative identity).

1.7. Childhood amnesia

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

Despite this, early amygdala development does facilitate the articulation of an emotional imprint for these events, even though during adulthood they cannot be described in exact words. For this reason, even though we cannot remember what happened during the first years, it can affect us emotionally.

2. Abnormalities of memory

Abnormalities in memory are common in the general population, although some of them manifest themselves preferably 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.

Incomplete personal recollection

This phenomenon occurs when we coincide with a person with whom we have already done so in the past, and even though we are aware of such a nuance, we cannot identify what we know him about (or where). In this case, a memory is produced, although attenuated and incomplete, since part of the information is not available. This is a common experience associated with the absence of contextual keys that facilitate the process, that is, the fact that we find the person in an unaccustomed space (different from the one in which we usually locate them).

2.2. Sense of knowing

This is a feeling (bordering on certainty) that we have knowledge about a particular event , or about a term, although we eventually fail to demonstrate it. 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 that is really known and another that is believed to be known.

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 very uncomfortable feeling that arises when we are unable to pronounce a particular word, despite knowing it and wanting to use it in the context of some conversation . This phenomenon is more frequent in terms of rare usage, despite the fact that it also occurs in the most everyday ones, and tends to be exacerbated under conditions of fatigue or stress. It may become more common, too, as the years go by.

Often the person comes to remember some of the properties of the word they intend to use, such as the beginning or the end, and tries to perform a sub-vocation for the purpose of “finding it”. Paradoxically, this effort often inhibits the irruption of such a longed-for word, since it is a reality that is very often revealed only when one stops thinking about it.

2.4. Temporary lagoon

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

2.5. Task verification

Some tasks are carried out so routinely that, despite the attention paid while doing them, it can be difficult to discriminate whether or not they were actually carried out. This is because their repetition exerts an interfering effect, and the person manifests difficulty in identifying whether the memory found in his or her “head” corresponds to this last occasion or whether it is in fact the trace of a previous day . The “problem” leads to constant checking of the action (closing a door, turning off the stove, etc.).

2.6. Pseudomemory

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

Another example is pseudo-fantasy. In this case, false memories are deliberately created, but which cannot be explained by mnesic holes, but by an unresolved emotional need . The aim would be to generate some “events” coherent 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 (to the point of becoming totally impossible and really imaginative acts).

Finally, many authors include in this category the delirious memories , through which the person forms reminiscences 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 timeline congruent with the content of current thoughts and perceptions.

3. Recognition anomalies

Recognition anomalies are errors in the way a memory or a stimulus located in the present is processed, and could be summarized as false positive recognitions (feeling that one “remembers” an event that one is experiencing for the first time) or false negative recognitions (perception that something experienced previously arises before our eyes as totally new).

3.1. Dejà vu

Déjà vu is a very familiar sensation, since practically all of us have been able to experience it at some time. It is the perception that a really new situation is burnished with a great familiarity , as if it were not the first time that one walks through it. In colloquial language, it tends to be expressed as “this sounds familiar” or “I$0027ve been here”. Over the years, numerous hypotheses have been put forward to explain it, from spiritual to strictly scientific, although the reason for this is not yet clear.

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

Finally, many people believe in the possibility that the experience of déjà vu would allow them to predict particular events that might take place as it unfolds, a distorted belief that has been coined under the heading of “pseudo-presence”.

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

3.2. Jamais vu

Jamais vu is the mirror of dejà vu, so they could be understood as opposites. In this case, the person is faced with a situation that he or she has already experienced at least once, but does not perceive any familiarity at all . Thus, despite being aware of an identical or very similar previous experience, he or she values the fact as if it were completely new. It is less common than déjà vu, and may occur to people who are sensitive to slight spatial modifications that take place in known environments (fading as quickly as it takes to identify the change).

3.3. Cryptomnesia

Cryptomnesia consists of the firm belief that a memory is not a memory, but an original production. In this way, one runs the risk of adopting other people$0027s ideas or reflections as one$0027s own , since their access to memory lacks familiarity and/or recognition. It is common in scientific and artistic fields, and has motivated over the years innumerable lawsuits for plagiarism or the improper use of intellectual property.

Bibliographic references:

  • Camina, E. and Güell, F. (2017). The Neuroanatomical, Neurophysiological and Psychological Basis of Memory: Current Models and Their Origins. Frontiers on Psychology, 8, 1-16.
  • Tyng, C.M., Amin, H.U., Saad, M.N. and Malik, A.S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frontiers on Psychology, 8, 1-22.