by Dr. Donna Roberts

I’ve a grand memory for forgetting.
—Robert Louis Stevenson

The Story

Forgetting—it’s a part of our everyday life, albeit an annoying one. We forget both the trivial and the important—everything from the algebra we learned in high school to the name of our latest acquaintance to where we put our car keys. Sometimes we remember the trivial—all the lyrics to our favorite songs from the teenage years—while forgetting the important—details of a critical work project. People have forgotten their drinks on the roof of the car and their children at a rest stop.

Most of the time we get frustrated when we can’t remember something. But then again sometimes we can’t forget things that we would like to.

And these fall under the “normal” category of forgetting, not indicative of serious brain disease or injury.

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Psych Pstuff’s Summary

There are extremes on this memory continuum. In terms of remembering achievements, Dave Farrow broke the Guinness World Record for Most Decks of Playing Cards Memorized in a Single Sighting twice—once in 1996 when he memorized a random sequence of 52 decks and then again in 2007 when he reclaimed the title by accurately recalling 59 decks (3,068 cards). Other extraordinary feats, including abilities like remembering vivid details about any random date, are cited throughout scientific literature. The World Memory Championship is an annual contest where would-be memory geniuses memorize as much information as they can in a specified period of time. In 2015, Alex Mullen became the first American to win the competition since its inception in 1991.

On the other end of the spectrum, Clive Wearing suffers from an extreme case of amnesia as a result of viral infection that attacked his nervous system. He lacks both the memory of most details of his past and the ability to form new memories. His memory span lasts only 7-30 seconds. This YouTube clip gives a short glimpse into his tragic circumstance.

Most of us exist between these extremes—remembering less than we would like, but enough to properly function most days.

But why do we forget at all?

Encoding, storage and retrieval are the three basic processes involved in the progression of memory, according to the most widely accepted theory. These steps are highly complex and the complete neurological and physiological mechanisms are still not fully understood. Basically, encoding begins with perception and attention, functioning as the decision point determining whether the sensory information will be discarded as irrelevant (we can’t, after all, pay attention to every aspect of every experience) or saved as important data for further processing. If we make a “wrong” decision at this point—that is, fail to pay adequate attention to the situation and thus fail to “decide” to save it—then the information is lost before it ever becomes a memory.

In the storage stage, the brain further processes the information and, depending upon its level of relevance, it will be attended to in sensory memory, short-term memory or the more permanent long-term memory (the kind we typically mean when we refer to “memory”). Because human memory is fundamentally associative in nature, it is formed by comparing and connecting to previously remembered information. If these associations are weak or unclear, or if the information is confusing, contradictory or not personally meaningful, the memory will tend to fade over time, especially if it is not further reinforced by additional input.

If we make a “wrong” decision, that is, fail to pay adequate attention to the situation and thus fail to “decide” to save it, then information is lost before it ever becomes a memory.

Retrieval refers to calling up the saved information at a later time. This is where we sometimes struggle with remembering and become aware that we have forgotten certain details. Because our associative-based memory is not a discrete packet located in a fixed area of the brain, remembering is more accurately a process of reconstructing all the associated pieces, much like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. And sometimes a few (or more than a few) pieces are missing.

In addition to all of the possible problems that can occur at each of these stages, environmental and situational factors can interfere with our ability to remember. Issues such as emotional state, stress level, health, environmental cues and distractions can all help or hinder our memories.

When forgetting goes beyond the everyday absent-mindedness a more serious memory disorder may be the cause. Various forms of dementia and other neurological disorders such as Huntington’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease, as well as the effects of a stroke, all effect cognitive functioning on a large scale, including memory deterioration. Amnesia refers to the general term for conditions that affect either the retrieval of existing memories (retrograde) or the formation of new memories (anterograde). Amnesia can be neurological (brain injury, disease or drug induced) or psychological (response to trauma or stress) in nature. Most cases of amnesia are temporary in duration, though the length and severity varies widely.

Memory is essential to everyday functioning. We rely on it continually to negotiate our world. But sometimes it fails us, leaving us confused, unable to make sense of the information before us or fill in the missing pieces. And yet, psychologists speculate that even the forgetting that we perceive as an imperfection or a breakdown, has an adaptive, evolutionary purpose—a mechanism for de-fragging extraneous bits of information so that our brains are better suited to respond and survive. We just might not always agree on what to retain and what to discard.

As an old Chinese proverb advises, The faintest ink is better than the most vivid memory.

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Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.