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3 Tutorials that teach Memory and Forgetting
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Memory and Forgetting

Memory and Forgetting

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This lesson will explain forgetting and describe the strategies used to avoid it.

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Tutorial

What's Covered

This lesson will cover why information is not remembered by looking at:

  1. Forgetting
  2. Reasons for Forgetting

1. Forgetting

Memory isn't necessarily perfect. Sometimes a person doesn’t  remember things well, or forgets things that they had previously learned. Forgetting  literally means not remembering. Another way to look at it is that a person is not being to retrieve information from their memory.

There are two types of memory:

  • Short-term memory
  • Long-term memory

Short-term memory stores information in small amounts for short periods of time. When forgetting occurs it usually happens here because  forgetting is part of the process of short-term memory. Any kind of information that we want to remember further doesn't say in our short-term memory; it goes into our long-term memory.

Information can be kept for longer in our short-term memory if we repeat or rehearse it. This puts it back in our short-term memory for several seconds. Unless it's encoded and stored in the long-term memory, it's forgotten.

Term to Know

  • Repetition/Rehearsal
  • A way of keeping information in a person's short term memory, where the person says it to himself or herself and practices it, which puts it back into the short term memory for longer times.

However, when a person says that they are forgetting something, they are referring to losing it from long-term memory. How does this work exactly? A psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus performed some of the first psychological experiments on memory and on forgetting in 1885. He tested his own memory in trying to memorize three letter nonsense syllables.

Examplew-o-l, or wol, or g-e-x, or gex.

He tested how he would be able to remember them over different periods of time. This lead him to create the Curve of Forgetting. This is something that we use still to understand how forgetting works. It shows that people begin to immediately forget information up to a few minutes or even a few hours after encoding.

Term to Know

  • Curve of Forgetting
  • A graph created by Herman Ebbinghaus that shows that people immediately begin forgetting large amounts of information up to 2 days after learning, then forgetting slows down between 6 and 31 days, after which, it remains relatively stable.

There's a drastic change in how much we remember within a relatively short period of time. Ebbinghaus found that  within a day or two, forgetting starts to level off a bit until about six days. This is where it basically levels off at around 30% retention for these nonsense syllables that he was learning. After that, it remains relatively stable, and our long-term memory is almost permanent, in certain ways. This is even more true with meaningful information, and not these nonsense syllables.


2. Reasons for Forgetting

The amount of information that can be retained is even higher than 30%, and it can be a lot more stable. Why do we actually forget? Psychologists have found that there are several different reasons, and they relate to the process of creating memories in the first place.

Creating memories means first encoding the information so that we can understand it, then storing that information in our brains, and finally retrieving it later for usage. An encoding failure can be the first reason we forget something.

Term to Know

  • Encoding Failure
  • The inability to form a memory and store it in the long-term memory.
This means an inability to actually form the memory in the first place, and to put it within our long-term memory. In an experiment done by Nickerson and Adams, some people were asked to identify what a penny actually looks like, out of a series of fake images with one correct one.

They found it was difficult, because people don't pay attention to a lot of the details that make up a penny like which direction Lincoln's head is facing, or where the information is placed on either side of him. Humans only encode the things that we need to actually remember like what a penny basically is and how it's different from other coins. This is example of an encoding failure, because people don't actually pay attention to those things.

The idea of use it or lose it is also true for memory, as well. When memory is formed and encoded into storage, something called memory traces are created. These are new connections and changes within the neurons of our brains.

The Decay Theory says that over time, these connections begin to fade and go away unless they are repeated or rehearsed. Unless we use that memory in some way, eventually it will disappear from our long-term memory. This creates what is called a storage failure. The Decay Theory isn't absolute.

ExampleSometimes we can remember things from our childhood that we haven't thought about for a very long time.

Retrieval Failure is another reason for forgetting. This is when there can be some interference in retrieving information. Certain memories, either new or old, can compete with each other and make it difficult to remember specific information that we have. A person is not able to access memories within their mind, because other ones are getting in the way.

A person can also intentionally forget memories. This can happen either consciously, by suppressing the information, or unconsciously, by repressing the memories. This can apply especially to very unhappy or unpleasant memories from different periods of life that a person may want to forget, or that is unconsciously put to the back in our memory storage. The memory is still there, but it's something that the person doesn’t want to think about.

Summary

Forgetting literally means not remembering, and is the inability to retrieve information. Forgetting is a natural part of short-term memory. Most of the information processed by short-term memory is forgotten. When a person says they have forgotten something, they usually are referring to information from their long-term memory. There are several reasons for forgetting information. There can be an encoding failure, lack of use, retrieval failure, or a person can intentionally forget memories.

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia Author Erick Taggart

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Curve of Forgetting

    A graph created by Herman Ebbinghaus that shows that people immediately begin forgetting large amounts of information up to 2 days after learning, then forgetting slows down between 6 and 31 days, after which, it remains relatively stable.

  • Repetition/Rehearsal

    A way of keeping information in a person's short term memory, where the person says it to himself or herself and practices it, which puts it back into the short term memory for longer times.

  • Encoding Failure

    The inability to form a memory and store it in the long-term memory.