Forgetting and forgetfulness
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
The mysteries of remembering and forgetting have fascinated humankind for hundreds, even thousands, of years. In the late nineteenth century, memory was one of the areas of interest to early psychologists such as Hermann Ebbinghaus and William James. Ebbinghaus conducted an experiment in 1885 in which he tested his own memory; he graphed a forgetting curve, illustrating how much information on a particular list he forgot over time. James wrote about the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon in 1890, evocatively describing the gap that exists in the place of a name one is trying to recall as “intensely active” and containing the “wraith of the name” beckoning within it.
Though often reliable—and, at times, astoundingly accurate—human memory is fallible. Daniel Schacter, a prominent cognitive psychologist, has referred to this duality as “memory’s fragile power.” During the twentieth century, scientists who studied artificial intelligence occasionally clashed with neuroscientists on the relative merits of machine-based models of memory. Later, scientists uncovered the deleterious effects of some pharmaceutical compounds on memory, which suggests that drugs may help trauma victims reduce or erase their recollection of events, thereby lowering the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Memory’s power is evident in what it makes possible in everyday life: a sense of personal history, knowledge of countless facts...
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Physical Causes (Psychology and Mental Health)
Research on the causes of memory failure has examined the range of forgetting, from the more normal tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon to total amnesia. Memory loss related to disease and injury has also been the focus of research. Head injuries, for example, can cause difficulties remembering certain information. In cases of brain tumor, in which certain parts of the brain are removed, aspects of memory may be irreparably lost. Alcoholics who drink heavily for many years frequently encounter difficulties remembering; this condition is sometimes termed Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Those who use drugs may also experience memory impairment; actual brain damage may occur in such cases. Strokes or internal injuries can also cause memory loss, as can epilepsy; during an epileptic seizure, oxygen is not getting to the brain, a condition that may result in brain damage and memory loss.
Older people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia have trouble remembering. For years, many believed that the hormonal changes associated with menopause produced memory impairment, but the evidence has not supported this as a causal factor. Aging itself seems to affect memory retrieval in a phenomenon once known as benign senescent forgetfulness, but later referred to as age-associated memory impairment (AAMI). The reasons for this fairly common condition are not completely understood but may include changes in brain physiology and...
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Theories of Normal Forgetting (Psychology and Mental Health)
One theory of forgetting holds that “forgotten” material was never learned in the first place. In other words, the information was never encoded. Another possibility is that such little importance was attached to the material that it was poorly learned—or encoded—and was subsequently forgotten. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they must learn and are simply incapable of remembering the massive amount of material.
Another theory about forgetting suggests that material is never really forgotten; rather, people cannot find the key to retrieve the information from the brain’s filing system—its long-term memory. Nearly everyone has experienced the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (seeing someone at a party, for example, but being unable to remember the person’s name). Sometimes concentration aids memory retrieval; often association helps the process. At the same time, anxiety and depression can interfere with recall. Psychologists have also noted primacy and recency effects regarding memory; that is, people remember what is learned first and what is learned last most efficiently. Material that is presented in the middle tends to be more easily forgotten.
In William James’s “booming, buzzing confusion,” people frequently are unable to process adequately all the information encountered; forgetting of some information is necessary. Moreover, people must often...
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Forgetting as a By-Product of an Adaptive System (Psychology and Mental Health)
In The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (2001), Daniel Schacter presents a framework for classifying the various ways memory fails. He reviews decades of research evidence from social, cognitive, and clinical psychology, as well as later work using imaging methods that make it possible, for example, to observe changes in brain activity as someone retrieves previously learned information. Schacter suggests that like the biblical seven deadly sins—pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth—the seven sins of memory occur frequently in everyday life.
Memory’s seven sins are transience, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The first three are different types of forgetting. Transience involves decreasing accessibility of information, with recent evidence indicating that forgetting over time is best described mathematically as a power function; that is, the rate of forgetting slows down with the passage of time. Absentmindedness results from inattentive or shallow processing of information that in turn causes weak memories of ongoing events, such as forgetting where one recently placed an object. When absentminded lapses involve forgetting to carry out a planned action at some time in the future, such as picking up the dry cleaning on the way home from work, they are referred to as failures of prospective...
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Ways to Minimize Forgetting (Psychology and Mental Health)
Two different types of tests are used to assess memory and learning; one type tests recognition, while the other tests recall. A multiple-choice test assesses the first type of memory, because in this type of test one needs to recognize the correct answer when one sees it. An essay examination tests recall—all the responsibility is on the learner to recall as much relevant information as possible.
Research on memory and forgetting can be applied in both academic and nonacademic settings. There are a number of things people can do to aid learning and protect against forgetting. Overlearning is one tactic that ensures that people have learned material and will remember it later. In this technique, students repeat the material by rehearsing it in their head to ensure later recall. If they need to learn a formula, they may repeat it over and over—perhaps writing it a hundred times. This can be tedious, which undoubtedly spurred the search for other options to learn and remember more effectively. Constant review is another strategy. In spaced practice, students study materials to be learned for one hour each night before the test. These students seem to remember the material better than those who spend eight hours studying the material the night before the test. (That type of study—“cramming”—is called massed practice.) For some students, cramming does work, but the material is easily forgotten following...
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Forgetting in the Courtroom (Psychology and Mental Health)
Forgetting is especially problematic when eyewitnesses are required to testify in courtroom settings. Some argue that given extensive trial preparation, the likelihood of false memories being implanted or the corruption of recall is significant. This has been a concern when prosecution is delayed, as in holocaust and war crimes. The seven sins of memory have particular relevance in this setting and have been helpful to forensic psychologists seeking to enhance the accuracy of courtroom testimony.
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Bjork, Elizabeth Ligon, and Robert A. Bjork, eds. Memory. 2d ed. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1998. Foremost researchers in cognitive psychology discuss storage and access of information in both short-term and long-term memory; how memory is controlled, monitored, and enhanced; individual differences in mnemonic ability; and the processes of retrieval and retention, including eyewitness testimony, and training and instruction.
Brainerd, C. The Science of False Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. A comprehensive treatment of theory and research on false memory.
Golding, Jonathan M., and Colin M. MacLeod, eds. Intentional Forgetting. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997. This book reviews more than thirty years of research on one phenomenon of memory-directed forgetting. The main thrust of research on intentional forgetting is memory’s updating ability.
Schacter, Daniel L. The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. Schacter, a leading expert on memory, presents a framework to describe the basic memory failures people encounter. The book offers vivid examples of the memory sins and presents research involving imaging, which shows memories being formed in the brain. Schacter also discusses various memory-enhancing techniques.
Thompson, Charles P., et al., eds. Autobiographical Memory:...
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