Forgetting and why the brain allows forgetfulness has been a subject of study for quite some time. Though it is frustrating when we lose track of a necessary piece of information, studies show that the brain may have a good reason not to hold on to some things. Sigmund Freud, the famed psychologist, suggests that people forget certain things in order to repress them. His idea was that the human brain uses forgetting to get rid of unpleasant memories. But what about the things that we want to remember and can’t?

Most scientists agree that when someone forgets information they want to remember, it is caused by retrieval failure or decay. Retrieval failure is also called the “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. This usually happens when someone tries to recall a seldom-used fact. Decay is probably the most common reason for forgetting. When a memory is committed to long-term storage, decay is less likely. But in short-term memory, decay happens rapidly, as short-term memory isn’t meant to hold large amounts of information. Interestingly enough, human memory can be compared to computer memory. Computers were designed to mimic the human mind, and scientists are now using discoveries in computer science to help decipher processes of the computer’s biological predecessor. RAM (random access memory) works similarly to short-term memory. Its capacity is very limited, and storage for any memory in that stage is generally fleeting. A computer’s hard drive is similar to a person’s long-term memory. Information is encoded and stored in a much more permanent fashion for later retrieval. The encoding of the information is what makes the difference in whether it is stored in short-term memory or long-term memory. Long-term memory requires more time and repetition, among other things, to further encode and store a piece of data.

Forgetting can happen if information isn’t encoded properly. Usually what determines the effectiveness of encoding is a person’s attention span. If someone is distracted by noise or visual stimuli while studying, then the information is more likely to have errors in encoding.

Even if a memory is properly encoded, it still takes some work for most memories to remain accessible for recall. There are two types of rehearsal needed to maintain a memory: maintenance rehearsal and relational/elaborative rehearsal. Maintenance rehearsal is just a quick skim back over the information to keep it fresh in the mind (such as memorizing a telephone number). Relational/elaborative rehearsal involves the mind making connections among pieces of data to strengthen its associations with the information.

Other causes of forgetting involve trauma and disease. Most notably, diseases such as Alzheimer’s cause an accelerated decay of the memory. The exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease haven’t been discovered, but some research indicates that a build-up of plaque between nerve cells as well as “tangles” in the cells cause them to die.

Other causes of forgetting involve trauma and disease. Most notably, diseases such as Alzheimer’s cause an accelerated decay of the memory. The exact causes of
Forgetfulness may be frustrating, but as scientists have found, sometimes the brain has a reason for losing information. It may be frustrating, but with current knowledge and memory tricks, we can maximize the use of our memory’s abilities.

photo by Richard0