Short-term memory loss in teens has a variety of causes. The place where true memory is stored lies deep in the brain in subcortical areas called the temporal lobe and hippocampus. Actual memory loss that rises from damage to these structures is usually not the reason for memory trouble in teens. Short-term memory loss in young adults is best explained by first understanding the various underlying mechanisms of short-term memory, as these circuits remain vulnerable during adolescence.
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What is Short Term Memory?
Short-term memory is also called working memory. In his handbook of psychological assessment, psychologist Gary Groth-Marnat defines working memory as active engagement with new information that must occur prior to learning. He states that working memory contains, "an executive component that initiated, monitored and evaluated information." In this way, working memory must be activated in order for new information to be learned and stored in the memory circuits in the brain. In the daily life of a teenager, many distractions arise on a regular basis. Thus, at any given moment, working memory may be disrupted, which will likely result in an inability to retrieve missed information. When this happens, the child will feel as though memory loss has occurred, when working memory actually never engaged in the first place.
Attention and the Teenager
Attention underlies memory in a very similar function to the working memory system. Divided attention is the ability to attend to specific information that is being learned in the midst of background noise. Background noise for the teenager may consist of music, TV, phone conversations, and any other number of activities. When attention is divided, the result can be that new information is not properly encoded for memory storage. In 2000, psychologist Angela Troyer studied the impact of attention issues on memory in young people. She found that encoding new information requires full attention in many cases. Teenagers may not realize the extent to which their level of background noise impacts the ability to encode and retrieve information.
Processing speed refers to how quickly an individual processes information in verbal and visual formats. The role of processing speed in memory is quite important in a classroom setting. When a child attempts to learn new information from a teacher in an oral lecture or power point format, the ability to encode and store facts in long term memory relies, in part, on the ability to quickly process what is being said. Psychologist Hanna Moulder studied the role of processing speed in academic attainment in children and found that learning and memory was significantly lower in children with poor processing speed. Thus, if a teenager has not processed information quickly enough, the result will likely feel like memory loss when the true culprit is slowed processing speed.
Emotional Side of Memory
Emotional state plays a role in memory. Given the high level of emotionality during adolescence, this factor should be taken into account when teenage memory loss occurs. Depression, anxiety, social drama and more severe mental illness make it difficult for a child to maintain proper cognitive functioning to actively engage in learning. For instance, among the signs of depression described by "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" are poor concentration and memory. Thus, a child who suffering from emotional upheaval remains vulnerable to diminished short-term memory.
Given the variety of systems that must function properly for memory to be activated, when a teenager complains for memory loss it is important to unpack the complaint. When the problem is broken down into the step-by-step processes involved in learning and attainment of new information, parents will generally find that processing speed, attention, or emotional distraction underlie the memory loss. If all of these systems appear to have be activated and the child still feels memory loss has occurred, a professional consultation with a clinical neuropsychologist may be needed.
- Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology; "The Effect of Divided Attention on Memory for Items and their Context"; Angela Troyer; Sept. 2000
- Child Fetal Neonatal Education: "Processing Speed and Working Memory Underlie Academic Attainment in Very Preterm Children"; Hanna Mulder et al; 2010
- "Handbook of Psychological Assessment"; Gary Groth-Marnat; 2003