Kevin Huang, Bsc Pharm Student
Memory can be a funny thing. We spend most of our time learning, yet somehow, we tend to forget the same information we try to retain. Whether it’s your dinner plans with your family or trying to remember where you placed your keys, many find this problem to be a hassle and an inconvenience. We wish we could remember everything. So why do we forget?
How Memories are Formed
To start, our memories are recreated experiences from the past. We remember them because we have previously stored this information in our brains, allowing us to use them when we need it. But how do we form memories in the first place?
When we are acquiring a new skill, the information is passed through the neurons (nerve cells) and are encoded into our brain. This short-term memory is temporarily stored, allowing you to access it for a short period. However, when left alone, this memory will begin to fade away.1 For example, imagine yourself looking through the fridge before you head to the grocery store. You start making mental notes of all the food you need to buy, such as apples, milk, and bread. During the drive, you remember the list, but by the time you arrive at the store, you might forget to grab the bread. Sound familiar? This has happened to all of us, and it’s all because of how short-term memory works.
Thankfully, our brain has a process to change this information into long-term memory. You see, when you rehearse a memory, you retrieve the information from the brain. This act of retrieval strengthens the connection between the nerve cells (synapses), enhancing your ability to recall the experience more quickly with finer details.1 This is especially true when studying new or unfamiliar material (eg. learning a new language). We rehearse the content over and over again until we can recite it without even thinking. Through practice, we can transfer short-term information into long-lasting memories, allowing you to utilize them later on in life.
Theories of Memory:
The brain is a complex structure, filled with intricacy we have yet to fully understand. Psychologists have spent many years trying to find the cause behind memory loss. Due to this, many theories have been developed to help us find that answer. Currently, the most common theories discussed are the Decay Theory and the Interference Theory.
The Decay Theory approaches memory loss with a mindset around short-term memory. Like mentioned earlier, memories recently learned are only stored for a limited period of time.2 As time progresses, more of that information begins to disappear until you’re unable to recall the memory again. A good analogy would be writing your name in the sand with the ocean waves sweeping in. Slowly with time, it will wash your name away, just like a fleeting memory.
On the other hand, the Interference Theory focuses on the relationship between new and retained memories. There are two schools of thoughts on this subject, the proactive interference and retroactive interference.3
- Proactive Interference is when old memories disrupt your ability to learn new materials. For instance, you might have a hard time accessing your email immediately after you have changed your password. This is because your past experiences are so engrained in your mind that it interrupts your ability to recall the new change. Hence you may find yourself typing the old password. The past is affecting your future.
- Retroactive Interference is when new information makes it difficult for you to retrieve past memories. A good example would be learning a new language. You find yourself practicing this new skill, and eventually become quite fluent in it. However, when you are required to speak your mother tongue, you might have difficulties finding the right words or phrases again. So, the future affects your past.
Although these theories provide us with a basic understanding of memory loss, they are not without complications. Like any theory, there are discussions regarding how applicable they are in real life. Sometimes, the theories may explain why a certain process works. While other times, they may fail to address the big picture. This doesn’t mean the theories are useless. They serve as the building blocks to understand the complex nature of the mind. What’s important is to acknowledge that there is still an ongoing need for research to help us understand this great mystery.
Is Memory Loss All Bad?
So, we all know how bad memory loss may be, but what if this misfortune can have some unintended benefits? Imagine yourself breaking an ankle. The trauma is surely something you don’t want to remember. Thankfully, over a few years, you might have a hard time recalling this incident. This is great news for us since our brains are selective with our memories and can help us filter out things we don’t desire to remember.4
Another example would be how our brain deals with irrelevant information. In this age of social media, we are bombarded with cute videos of dogs and the latest news about our favourite celebrities. As entertaining as they may be, they aren’t the most useful things to retain. This is where short-term memories work in our favour as we spend less time reviewing this information. Hence that memory begins to decay until it is completely gone.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t spend time worrying about this problem. By selectively choosing the memories we decide to create, we effectively build a system that works for us. Furthermore, I think it’s inaccurate to say we truly forget things. Instead, we update old information with new knowledge to make it more applicable for our current time. Similar to learning to use our alphabets to create stories, we can adapt our old skills to make something more meaningful and impactful.
As always, we hope you took away something valuable from this piece. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this article or others, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram, Facebook, or at email@example.com with your feedback. We’d love to hear from you.
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- S. (1970, January 01). Theories of forgetting. Retrieved from http://psychologicalresources.blogspot.com/2014/12/theories-of-forgetting.html
- Proactive and Retroactive Interference. (2017, November 17). Retrieved from https://www.psychestudy.com/cognitive/memory/proactive-retroactive-interference
- Why We Forget. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/defining-memories/201706/why-we-forget