How do humans remember and forget things?

by | Mar 23, 2020 | Human Body

How do humans remember and forget things? Where do forgotten memories go? Human memory is one of the most poorly documented aspects of human life. Memory itself is extremely complex to study. We have a long way to go before being able to understand it completely. An expert on the subject, Professor Robert A. Bjork, wrote an extremely beneficial book on this subject; this article is mostly based on his work.

Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Where do forgotten memories go?

What happens when we seemingly forget something? Where did I place my car keys? What is the family name of that old friend? We may tend to think that the memory of such things just evaporate away from our minds. Do they really vanish in thin air? According to research, the memory does not disappear, so to say. Rather, it is saved in some part of the mind, but it becomes harder to have access to it if it ‘goes to the back of our minds’ (of course, not to be taken literally so!). So, research has shown that the memory does not decay, but forgetting is more about not be able to find the memory: it, as if, gets lost in some hidden compartment of the mind. Waiting to be found.

Forgetting: blessing in disguise?

Forgetting relevant details to our daily lives is so nagging, right? We’re constantly forgetting otherwise important things. But, is forgetting really such a bad thing? According to Professor Robert A. Bjork, forgetting is an important aspect of our life; contrary to popular belief that it is undesired and disadvantageous, it, in fact, helps us learn. Therefore, following this line of thought, forgetting is important. How so? Well, what are given more priority in terms of how our memory works is recent events. For example, you’re returning to the parking lot after shopping. You now need to remember where did you actually park the car. Imagine that on trying to remember it, all memories of previous car parks come to mind. That would be so not cool! It would be overwhelming to an impossible degree! Furthermore, you would have to sort the information out and pick and choose the right parking lot.

Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Therefore, our brain works such that we prioritize our memories, so that we ignore those memories which are not relevant; in this case, the memories of the other parking lots. The irrelevant memories are less easy to access than the needed ones, which are the ones pertaining to the most recent aspect of our lives.

Retrieving forgotten memories

Now, we do forget so as to learn. To be able to integrate the present world and life events, we focus more on the recent memories – the ones that we need. And, as mentioned above, the past memories do not actually evaporate off. They just become harder to have access to. However, they can and they do come back to our mind from time to time. They can be revived as we retrieve them. Once you get them back to mind, it is processed quicker than new information, since this was old information that was momentarily forgotten.

Another finding discussed by the professor is that upon the recollection of a memory, it is somehow changed. Bringing an old memory to mind actually alters the memory. For instance, if you remember a particular event in your childhood, you might remember one specific incident of that event, hence rendering this memory stronger as opposed to the memories of other incidents having occurred during that event. Therefore, upon bringing back to mind an old memory, we are actually having past events being reconstructed in this sense, hence altered. We choose which memory to recall. We build ourselves from these memories that we prefer to remember.

The Unstable Nature of Memory

In light of these conclusions, it can be said that memory is of an unstable nature. We forget, and when we recall, it changes. Because of its instability, efforts are needed to be furnished consistently in order to commit to memory information. Do not ever underestimate this fact: we have to work in order to memorize information.

Forgetting, Remembering and Learning

The three go hand in hand. Remembering something forgotten helps build up the strength of the memory. As one is prompted to remember something of the past, that has escaped one’s mind, one goes through the process of constructing and reshaping the memory. This reinforces the memory’s strength, which in turn helps with learning.

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