Why do we forget?
We do not bother ourselves much with the answer: once you forget something your biggest problem is to recall it, not to think why the information just disappeared from your head. But maybe if we would look at why we forget closer, the whole issue of forgetting wouldn’t be so disturbing?
For effective learning, memory is as essential as the air to breathe. The quicker you memorize, the easier the learning process is.
However, memorizing information is one thing. Keeping it somewhere in the back of your memory in order to retrieve it whenever you need, is another. Let’s see some explanations for the most common memory errors that lead to forgetting (as based on the research of E. Loftus and D. Schacter).
1. Retrieval failure, or how facts quietly vanish from your memory
Have you ever felt like you’re not able to remember knowledge you were really good at some time ago (e.g., at high school)? That knowledge seemed quite fundamental to you but now you just fail to retrieve it.
One possible explanation for such failure is that information tends to fade away in the course of time, especially when you do not actively use it. New knowledge comes instead, and it has a higher priority for your current work. This is why practice is important. It’s one of the best ways to retain information in long-term memory (which means you’ll be able to retrieve it anytime.)
2. Absent-mindedness, or forgetting even trivial things
Because of so many things distracting us while we are busy, our attention gets scattered and information we want to memorize doesn’t even go to info short-term memory.
Why do we forget so often, even routine things like locking the door in the morning? One of the reasons is that we don’t really think about those things while doing them. Our brain is occupied with something else and so misses the moment when we can recall that yes, we did lock the door.
The same goes with learning or work. That’s why for effective learning, focus and attention are so important – if you’re not concentrated the information has little odds to get to your memory at all. On the contrary, if you’re fully focused on the task you are more likely to memorize information right away.
3. Blocking, or being knocked down by a single word (or rather its absence)
You’re struggling to remember some fact and it seems like it’ll dawn on you in a few seconds but for some reason it doesn’t. Does this sound familiar to you?
Even psychology recognizes this highly unpleasant experience. Tip-of-the-tongue feeling is a state when we fail to remember some familiar word. Our memory gives us several hints about some of its background and we experience a strong feeling that the word is about to come right now – sometimes it does come, but not always. Blocking is accompanied by frustration and sometimes even obsession, as we might not make ourselves stop thinking about it.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing much one can do about blocking, except hoping that word will come up eventually.
4. Misattributions, or confusing the facts
Another way our memory might fail us is misattributions – we may confuse sources of information. As you can imagine, it’s hardly the best outcome for learning or work. Misattribution often goes hand in hand with a very strong feeling of astonishment: we feel 100% sure we read that passage in book A while a friend points out it’s from book B.
Again, there’s not much we can do about such forgetting, except approach our judgments critically and give them a second thought.
5. Cognitive biases, or our inability to see the world as it really is
These are the weird psychological phenomena influencing the way we assess the world around us. Everybody is susceptible to biases; they act on an unconscious level and blur our perception of reality. Although in many cases, biases act as defense mechanisms which are hardly helpful when it comes to judging rationally.
For effective learning, approaching knowledge critically is important. It’s also equally important to challenge one’s own beliefs. One of the many examples of cognitive biases in action is the illusory truth effect: we tend to believe information we hear often enough. Moreover, we are more inclined to forget facts not consistent with our opinions which is hardly good for rational thinking.
6. Persistence, or sticking to negative
Some things should rather be forgotten: unpleasant experiences, failures and the like. Although it’s counterintuitive, we sometimes choose to stick to them and bring them out into the open every time something reminds us of the failure. Sometimes we retain those memories consciously, sometimes we wish them to disappear but they won’t – it depends.
Learning is a sequence of successes and mistakes. One is impossible without another; it’s therefore important not to become preoccupied with memories of failures as it undermines our motivation and confidence. It makes sense to try to block such recollections so they won’t drain your energy and focus on the positive ones instead.
As you can imagine, this is not the ultimate list of what our memory is able of. But because both memory and forgetting are so important to our learning and work, we should really know more about how it all works.
Every word we see or read changes our memory in a way. The memory decides what is to be stored and what is to be thrown away. In order for you to be an effective learner, it’d be perfect if your memory keeps the right things – but that’s the whole trick about it because you can never tell what it will choose to keep eventually.