Why Do We Forget?

We all forget, it’s completely natural. Call it a purposeful program or some sort of a mental glitch, it happens and there’s not much we can do to prevent it. But have you wondered why it happens?

One of today’s best known memory researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, has identified four major reasons for why people forget: retrieval failure, interference, failure to store, and motivated forgetting.

Let’s explore these in detail:

Retrieval Failure, is the inability to retrieve a memory, and is one of the most common causes of forgetting. Ever felt like a piece of information has just vanished from your memory? Or that you just know it’s there but you can’t recall? That’s retrieval failure.

So, why are we often unable to retrieve this information from memory? Well one possible explanation of this retrieval failure is the called the decay theory. This theory describes the way a memory trace is created every time a new idea is formed. Decay theory also suggests that with time, these memories begin to fade away and eventually disappear. If the information is not retrieved and rehearsed, it is eventually lost.

The second theory for memory failure is the Interference Theory, and this theory suggests that some memories compete and interfere with other memories. When information is very similar to other information that was previously stored in memory, interference is more likely to occur. Call it, a survival of the fittest of sorts, when the memories stored are similar, the one more relevant at the time is better stored.

There’s two basic types of interference:

Proactive interference is when an old memory makes it difficult or impossible to remember a newer memory. And Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with the ability to remember information learned in the past.

Failure to store information and lose memory is also a reason for forgetting things. Losing memory has less to do with forgetting and more to do with the fact that it never made it into the long-term memory in the first place sometimes. This prevents information from being stored and therefore harder for us to retrieve it.

Sometimes forcefully working to forget memories, especially those of traumatic or disturbing events or experiences can also contribute a lot to forgetting. The two basic forms of motivated forgetting are suppression, which is a conscious form of forgetting, and repression, an unconscious form of forgetting.

But, the concept of repressed memories is not universally accepted by all psychologists. One of the problems with repressed memories is that it is really hard, if not impossible, to scientifically study whether or not a memory has been repressed. Since the memories are disturbing and traumatic, they are not likely to be rehearsed or remembered that often, which automatically leads to them slowly fading away and ultimately being lost.


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