What Causes Gaps and Problems with My Memory?

Reader’s Question

My question is regarding having no memory of certain things that I have said or done in my past. First of all, it has nothing to do with any ongoing alcohol or drug use. When I’m with friends they’ll ask if I remember this or that happening and at times I have absolutely no memory at all about what they are talking about. I have a lot of time periods in my life where this is the case…not just one time frame or specific area. It’s not things that are painful and are often good times according to friends or family. I had a good childhood and normal upbringing. I’m a healthy 44-year-old and have been happily married for 21 years to my first love. I cannot remember several things about our early life and courtship together but on the other hand I do remember many things. I have periods of time now where I may not remember something that happened a few months ago. I have one large issue that has been significantly dramatic in my life and that was the injury of my husband 10 years ago in an accident that caused a head trauma and left him in a wheelchair. We still have a good life and resources that easily provide for him to be here at home and for me to have a life here and outside our home, as well, with friends and family. Many of the things that I can’t remember were well before the last 10 years and wouldn’t relate to my husband’s situation. Can you give me any insight into these random losses of memory and periods of time? Thank you.

Psychologist’s Reply

What you are describing is the way normal memory operates. Some general themes as far as memory goes:

  • We have more memory for significant events. We tend to remember our “firsts” but not every similar event that follows. Most of us remember our first kiss, but not every kiss that has followed.
  • We tend to remember events that contain emotions. This is called “emotional memory“. The stronger the emotional at the time of the event, the better our memory of the event. In fact, the brain also memorizes the formula for the emotion. Seeing an old flame at the 30th high school reunion can make us feel warm and fuzzy — but that’s how we felt 30 years ago, not now. We don’t know who they are in 2008.
  • We remember events that mean something to us. Everyone records the same life situation differently, like 8 news reporters all describing the same event. Events that are routine to us may be very emotional or significant to those around us. This happens when friends and family recall stories involving us — but we don’t remember them. That event was significant to them…not to us.
  • Memories naturally fade as the years pass. Over time, memories can become spotty, partial, and sometimes seem to be erased. This is normal aging.
  • Under stress we don’t record our memories consistently. You may have inconsistent memories about your husband’s injury and the years that follow. It’s very likely you will have gaps. During severe stress as in the death of a loved one, people seem to operate on “automatic” and often have little memory of the funeral or talking to friends/family during that time. High levels of stress often produce prolonged periods of time with little or no memory. This is especially true when our normal rhythm is disrupted during that time. While working my way through college at a large grocery store, assigned to work the night crew plus enrolled in 22 hours of college coursework per week, I now have very few memories of that year. I can look at courses on my college transcript and have no recollection of being in those classes, just random memories of work or college events.
  • Under stress, we can’t retrieve our memories as well. Stress changes body and brain chemistry, making memory recovery difficult. It’s like going to the library and the librarian is confused and unable to help us find a specific book or magazine.
  • Memories can be stored in different locations in the brain. If we want to explore memories of a certain time, listen to music of those times, look at pictures, watch news reels, etc.

On the bright side, it’s unlikely that you’ve forgotten something significant. It is likely that you’ve forgotten events that were significant to others — just not to you. When you are confronted by a memory gap or faulty recall, take a humorous approach and go on.

Please read our Important Disclaimer.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. Originally published by on and last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

Ask the Psychologist provides direct access to qualified clinical psychologists ready to answer your questions. It is overseen by the same international advisory board of distinguished academic faculty and mental health professionals — with decades of clinical and research experience in the US, UK and Europe — that delivers CounsellingResource.com, providing peer-reviewed mental health information you can trust. Our material is not intended as a substitute for direct consultation with a qualified mental health professional. CounsellingResource.com is accredited by the Health on the Net Foundation.

Copyright © 2023.