Kaitlin Ugolik is an award-winning journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes and edits stories about the law, health, finance, technology and the media.

Memory, anxiety and the "full brain"

I often wonder if my brain can get "too full." Not permanently — no, even I am not narcissistic enough to believe I could ever know that much — but temporarily. I worry that all of the little bits of information coming at me (and all of us) all the time might have some larger affect on my ability to remember more valuable things. Are Facebook statuses and Tweets and pop-up ads cluttering up precious space that I need for financial articles and interviews?

Wired had a great piece this afternoon answering this very question, and leading me to ask some more of my own.

It turns out that yes, you can clutter yourself up too much sometimes, but it's unlikely for your brain to ever reach its max. Some people even have issues forgetting, which can be really problematic for various reasons. Take a look at the piece - there are some links to research and some really interesting points about how memory works and about the true difference between short- and long-term memory.

This piece also left me wondering about some things about my own brain. I personally have a lot of trouble with long-term memory. I don't remember much from more than a few years ago. I remember bits and pieces — scenes, smells, places, people — but I can almost never recall full events. Maybe there's a particular name for this, I'm not sure. And maybe no one can truly remember much more than me — there's a lot of evidence that many of our memories are basically filler (see links in above-linked piece). But it's always bothered me that while I know intellectually that they happened, I can't actually remember a lot of my "firsts" or happenings that other people in my life deem important. Sometimes this is OK, like when my fiancé remembers a fight from five years ago that I thankfully do not, but sometimes it's a little sad. No, I don't remember going on that trip with my family, or what it felt like the first time I rode a bike, or what I got for my 17th birthday.

I know that people can sometimes "block things out" after a traumatic experience, but nothing in four years of therapy has suggested that I had such an experience. I did, however, grow up with a lot of anxiety. (Outing myself here - and not for the first time on this blog - that's why I'm in therapy!) The more I read about how memory works, the more I wonder if that has something to do with my limited recall ability. Maybe something to do with "working" memory?

From the Wired piece:

Juggling more than just a few pieces of information in your head at once is really hard. Throw one item too many into the mix and you’ve forgotten the name of the person you were just introduced to, or lost the idea you had before you got that phone call.

If that's true, and if working memory is the foundation of long-term memory (my reading suggests that this may be true?) it seems like it wouldn't be a far stretch to suggest that a child or teenager who is constantly thinking or worrying about something else in the back of her mind might have a tough time building long-term memories. I'm looking forward to reading more about it; let me know if you have suggestions!

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