Imagine you are one of the participants representing your school in an inter-school quiz contest. You are asked a question from Indian mythology which you read about a couple of days back and are now finding it hard to remember.
The passing time and fewer chances left for boosting your team score have put you in such a zone that despite trying your level best, you are unable to answer.
Your memory for that factual information leaves no scope to disappoint you. This and many such experiences in life make us realize the importance of human memory.
These are the events when you want your memory to support you the most but unfortunately fail to access information that you desperately need at a specific point of time.
Have you wondered why this happens? Why do we forget things we learn as time passes?
In this article, we will discuss various explanations for why do we forget things we learn?
Why Do We Forget Things? – Some Explanations
Some of the earliest explanations for why do we forget things as human beings relate to the passage of time.
This view suggests that information forming part of the long term memory (LTM), one of the human memory types, is forgotten as the time fades away. In other words, older the memory, harder it is to remember.
However, there are many research studies suggesting that forgetting simply does not happen as a result of the amount of time that has elapsed.
Rather, what is important is what occurs between the time when you learn certain information and the time when it is tested.
Therefore, the passage of time as a reason for why do we forget things was rejected and many other newer explanations were given in the favor of human beings forgetting things.
I. Forgetting Due To Interference
As we have seen above, forgetting is not a function of the passage of time. If that is the case, then what do we forget things as human beings?
One of the possible explanations in favor of forgetting is known as ‘interference’.
As per this explanation, forgetting happens mainly as a result of interference between items of information that form part of your memory.
Such interference between the items existing in the memory can take two different forms: retroactive interference and proactive interference.
Retroactive Interference refers to an interference with the information that is already stored in the memory by new information that is learned by an individual.
For instance, if a new recipe for preparing tea cake makes you forget the manner in which you made tea cake previously, what is at work here is the retroactive interference.
This is opposite to retroactive interference. Proactive interference is an interference with the current information learned or stored by an individual by the information that already exists in the memory.
For instance, you are unable to learn a new way of learning the tea cake due to interference by the existing memory for the tea cake.
Now, both retroactive and proactive interference play a crucial role in individuals forgetting things they learn.
However, there are a number of questions posed by the researchers for interference being the only factor responsible for forgetting things. Some of these are as follows:
II. Retrieval Inhibition
Suppose your friend asks you to remember the names of 60 countries given in a list. Would you be able to recall all of them when asked a minute later?
Now suppose your friend asks you to remember just 30 countries out of a list of 60. Would this help you in remembering the remaining 30 countries from the list?
Well, as a common man, you would say that it would certainly help since now 30 countries are to be remembered at a time.
But, research studies suggest that remembering just half of the countries out of the list would decrease your performance to remember the remaining 30 countries.
This is because when you try to remember information, you may be able to recall the items that you attempt to find. However, at the same time, you would generate inhibition of other items that you did not attempt to remember.
The consequence of such learning is that the other items become extremely challenging to remember in the near future.
So, in the example above, when you try to remember the names of 30 countries out of a list of 60, you at the same time generate inhibition that obstructs the recall of the remaining 30 countries on the list.
In other words, retrieval itself can result in forgetting not of the factual information that you recall (that is 30 countries you memorized out of the list of 60) but of the other associated information.
This is the process of retrieval inhibition where the information that you don’t tend to remember is inhibited and such inhibition is produced by the retrieval of the other related information. That is the information that you memorized.
III. Forgetting Events Too Painful To Remember
Is it true that we chose to forget memories of events that are too painful to remember?
Yes, it is a fact that human beings actively eliminate from their consciousness experiences that are too painful to remember.
This concept is called ‘Repression’ that played an important role in Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality. He also said that Repression was a cause of various psychological disorders.
According to Sigmund Freud, repressed memories hide in your unconscious mind, remain there, intensify, and cause various psychological problems.
These painful memories are then brought back to the consciousness of an individual with the help of a therapist.
Thus, Repression is a process where you are encouraged to forget memory because it was way too threatening to remember.
Repression has been given as one of the explanations in the trials that involve victims who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
Because the event was terrible and painful, they fail to remember such threatening experience and later are able to get back to their consciousness the memory of it when therapists question them and make use of suggestive techniques to do so.
However, there have been a number of questions raised on the authenticity of such memories reported by the victims during the therapy.
Are these memories real, accurate or are they simply a result of the suggestive techniques adopted by the therapists while asking questions?
There are a number of reasons that go against the authenticity of repression. These are as follows:
IV. Slipping of Information From Short-Term Memory
The slipping of information from short-term memory helps us in understanding why forgetting takes place in Short-Term Memory.
Short-term memory, also known as Working memory, is a memory that stores small amounts of information for shorter periods of time typically 30 seconds or less.
Further, working memory can retain only about seven distinct items that can vary two above or two below.
That is to say, if any information more than this enters our working memory, such a memory system gets overloaded and if any fresh information enters the working memory, the existing information disappears.
Why does this new information disappear from your short-term memory?
The most important findings made in this regard is the ‘Serial Position Curve’. Let’s have a look at the concept of the Serial Position Curve to better understand the working memory system.
Serial Position Curve
As per this finding, when an individual attempts to memorize a list of words, he is able to better remember the words appearing in the beginning and towards the end of the list relative to the words that appear in the middle.
That is to say, a chunk of unrelated words positioned at first and last of the list are remembered with greater accuracy as compared to the words placed in the middle of the list.
This happens because there exist two types of memory systems: short-term and long-term memory.
Short-Term memory retains information for a few seconds whereas long-term memory holds information for longer periods of time.
Given this, individuals typically remember the words appearing last in the list pretty well because of the ‘arecency effect’.
This is because these words are still afresh in the working memory when individuals are asked to recall the words they memorized in the list.
Likewise, they tend to remember words appearing at the beginning of the list because these words have already become a part of their long term memory.
Needless to say, words appearing in the middle of the list are forgotten because they have disappeared from the working memory and at the same time did not enter the long term memory.
Thus, individuals tend to remember only a few of the words appearing in the list.
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