Explanations for Forgetting
From forgetting to return an important phone call to not being able to remember where you left your car keys, forgetting is a common complaint that everyone shares. Forgetting is the inability to retrieve information from a memory due to a problem with encoding, storage, or retrieval. Forgetting can be very frustrating, especially since you are usually aware of forgetting when you really need to remember something — such as when taking an exam — or when you should have done something but the moment has passed — such as getting milk from the store before it closed.
Even though forgetting is natural to most people, if you are fed up with forgetting, there are some techniques you can use to help you remember, such as rehearsal and mnemonics. These techniques will be explained in detail later in this chapter.
Though you don't often think of it as such, forgetting can also be a blessing. For instance, do you really want to remember the pain you experienced in that car accident five years ago? Forgetting allows you to continue your life without giving focus to past painful, embarrassing, stressful, or unhappy experiences. Even so, most people still want to know why they forget. Researchers have come up with various theories to explain this.
The replacement theory holds that new information entering the memory replaces old information already stored. Studies that support this theory show that misleading information replaces the original memories of people. For instance, one study showed pictures of a car accident to two groups of people. In one group, the researches asked leading questions to make the people think they had seen a yield sign, when the picture had actually shown a stop sign. Those in the other group were not asked leading questions and therefore remembered seeing the stop sign. When both groups were later gathered together, they were told the purpose behind the experiment and asked to guess if they thought they had been part of the group that was misled. Nearly everyone in the group that was misled claimed that they had truly seen the yield sign and were not deceived. This led researchers to conclude that the implanted memory replaced the actual one.
The decay theory holds that some memories will dissipate if not retrieved every once in a while from the long-term memory. According to this theory, the formation of a new memory creates what is known as a memory trace, or a change in brain cells. If this memory is not periodically refreshed, the memory trace gradually fades. Why waste space with information you aren't going to use? Fortunately, decay doesn't affect all memories. Many procedural memories will remain in the long-term memory for as long as you live. For instance, even if you haven't ridden a bike in fifteen years, you can still remember how once you get back on. There isn't a specific time limit on when a memory has to be recalled before it decays; some memories will be forgotten the next day, and others may take years to forget.
Memory loss can also be attributed to brain damage. If you were to suffer a blow to the head, the memories stored in that particular area may be lost. Depending upon the type of damage suffered, the memory loss can be either temporary or permanent.
The cue-dependent theory holds that the retrieval of some memories are dependent upon cues that help to locate that information in the brain; if these cues are missing, then you may not be able to remember. Because the mind organizes information based on associations with other things, if you are able to recall an association, that increases your likelihood of recalling the particular information you are seeking. For instance, if you have forgotten the last name of a classmate, cues for remembering may be her first name, where she sat in class with you, her nickname, or even the circumstances surrounding the situation in which you first met her. Without these cues, you may not be able to recall her last name.
According to interference theory, information within the memory can interfere with other bits of information during storage or retrieval, thus causing you to forget. This can occur when incoming information is similar to information that is already stored, which can cause confusion when later trying to recall the first-stored information. Or vice versa. The formerly learned information can interfere with the recollection of the recently learned information. For instance, if you've recently met two people with similar names, you might confuse the two names later when meeting one of them again. While this may seem like the replacement theory, it is different in that the new information does not replace the old. Both bits of information are still there; they just become confused.
Psychogenic Amnesia Theory
The psychogenic amnesia theory holds that you forget experiences because of the need to escape the feelings associated with a painful, embarrassing, or otherwise unpleasant experience. In essence, you force the memory to the back of your mind so you do not have to face it. However, this doesn't mean that the memory can never be retrieved. Certain cues can be used to retrieve those memories. This concept began with Freud's theory of repression, which is the involuntary act of moving information that is deemed traumatic or threatening into the unconscious so as to avoid dealing with it. Because the person is unaware of the memory stored in the unconscious, he does not recall the events or feelings associated with the experience. In other words, it is blocked from the conscious memory, so the individual forgets it. The repression theory has become a topic of debate among professionals, as you will soon see.
If you tell someone to “forget it,” chances are you have just helped that person to remember. While the information normally may have just resided in short-term memory and then eventually been discarded, your drawing attention to that information may have given it greater meaning and thus helped it to reach the long-term memory.