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Post No.: 0578forgetful


Furrywisepuppy says:


Often, being forgetful is the result of not being conscientious enough to encode (properly pay attention to something in the first place), store or revise (including writing something down or similar so that it can be later rehearsed) or retrieve something (which can require persistence for we can have a memory stored in our heads but simply struggle to retrieve it again unless a retrieval cue/prompt sparks a recall).


After all, most people aren’t forgetful of the things they really want and care to remember and rehearse remembering, like when their favourite TV show is on next. The more we rehearse or revisit a memory, the stronger the neuronal connections that’ll make up that memory, hence the easier it’ll be to later recall. (Although something to beware is that stories that get told again and again might over time accumulate edits and embellishments, such as the stories told by your grandparents about their youthful escapades!)


Being forgetful is more likely due to incompletely or incorrectly encoded memories and/or problems at the retrieval stage – similar to the way the location information of a book in a library has been forgotten but that book is still somewhere in that library. It’s not so much that new memories push old ones out – attending to new memories may mean that we’ll be revising old memories less and it’s this lack of revision that’ll make the latter harder to retrieve.


Ageing increases the problem of being forgetful. We will naturally eventually experience cognitive decline if we grow old enough. But sometimes we apply confirmation bias because when we’re forgetful when young, we don’t usually worry about it – whereas when we’re forgetful when older, we’re more likely to worry that it’s an indication of our decline. So people of all ages occasionally forget things like an acquaintance’s name. It’s more concerning if we start to forget something like the route home from a frequent destination though.


The reliance on web searches and digital devices can also make us rely less on training our long-term memories because we don’t need to put in the effort to remember so much inside our own heads or revise things if external reminders of information are constantly easily at hand. Fewer people remember the phone numbers of their closest friends off the tops of their heads nowadays. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it, or never personally gain it in the first place. (In general, new technologies present new challenges and new skills but they can mean traditional skills get practised less and expected standards decrease e.g. perhaps it’s worrying that many people consider it a noteworthy achievement to assemble some flat-pack furniture, as if they’ve just personally crafted it from a tree. Possibly even more worrying is that there’s a generation of teenagers now who find it difficult to talk on the phone, with even their friends, for preferring to text or email – some even admit to texting people who are in the same room!)


Sometimes we don’t think about something for decades but then get reminded of that (usually unpleasant) thing and it can seem like it was a ‘repressed memory’. But there are disputes about the reliability of alleged repressed memories that have apparently been recovered through psychotherapy, hypnotherapy or spontaneously many years later, because they can be indistinguishable from false or pseudo-memories. (This includes so-called ‘past life regressions’ too.) There’s strongly arguably insufficient evidence that our brains are able to automatically repress painful memories after years of brutalisation, where we can banish them into our unconscious – yet then suddenly be able to reliably recover it all but only through therapy. Chances are these ‘suddenly remembered events after lots of probing’ are confabulations formed from a mix of some truth and some suggestion.


Dissociative amnesia is the inability to recall autobiographical information, and there are cases where people did experience trauma when young but cannot remember those events even though definite records of those events exist. But it doesn’t seem possible to deliberately delete memories at will – in fact, traumatic experiences tend to become imprinted even more strongly than other recollections because of their vivid emotional component. And it’s like telling yourself ‘don’t smoke’ – it only makes you think about smoking even more because you probably weren’t even thinking about cigarettes until ‘don’t smoke’ was mentioned. Every time you want to directly un-remember something – you are precisely revisiting and revising that memory and thus reinforcing it, which has the opposite effect.


So repression appears to be more likely normal forgetting and remembering. People can just be forgetful but, when prompted by a particular smell, taste, sound or other identifier associated with a memory, can remember the related dysphoric event again (and then one memory triggers another, which triggers another…). It isn’t necessarily down to repression because happy and neutral memories that haven’t been recalled for a while can be prompted in the same way too. Physical and/or psychological trauma can absolutely affect our memories in very individual ways though e.g. a person with PTSD getting constant ‘flashback’ recalls or intrusive thoughts related to his/her trauma event. Some simply don’t want to talk about certain painful memories of theirs, rather than have forgotten about them.


Events that are emotionally intense or have been revisited repeatedly have a better chance of being retained. Emotion is related to salience and therefore related to memory – we’re more likely to be less forgetful of the things that caused us an emotional reaction (bad things slightly more than good ones unfortunately).


Most information is forgotten quickly but information that has been learnt and revised well, in particular, becomes forgotten more slowly – so forgetting normally follows a logarithmic curve. As time passes, our recollections of an event fade unless and until it reaches a certain point and levels out and pretty much won’t ever be forgotten. So earlier memories (particularly those during adolescence) are more likely to be retained than later ones if one is to suddenly lose one’s memories, including suddenly losing any languages one learnt later in life after a specific head injury. This is evident with dementia sufferers, who also have problems encoding and storing very recent memories due to damage to their hippocampi.


Childhood amnesia is, with maybe rare exceptions, the inability of adults to retrieve episodic memories from before the age of ~2, along with retaining fewer recollections from before the age of ~10 than may be expected. A possible reason why people cannot recall anything earlier is because an infant brain has yet to develop the theory of mind or cognitive self? One’s earliest memory could possibly be a false one too, for it might be reconstructed from stories told by adults or came from a different event at a different time. Remembering is an active act of reconstruction instead of like passively pressing play on a video recording. And like trying to reconstruct a physical building every time we want to visit it – errors or design changes might creep in after every act of reconstruction, thus our recollections can potentially mutate over time.


When we think about the future, we’re essentially anticipating future memories. Broadly, the brain regions used for creating and visualising memories of the past are the same for planning and visualising the future too. (People who lose the ability to create new memories usually also lose the ability to look to the future.) The past and future are creations in our minds – for the only time that’s actually ever present is the present.


Our recollections are biased too – they’re biased to focus on novelty/changes, significant events and quite notably how things end. We therefore tend to forget most of the individual events that are common, everyday or taken for granted, like how lunch was delicious last Monday or how great it was to be with one’s pet last Sunday. Woof!


Remembering or processing what something was/is (recognition), and where you encountered/encounter it (spatial), uses different brain pathways, hence the risk of source amnesia.


Sleep is vital for the brain to organise the day’s memories, and for optimising alertness for the next day. Sleep deprivation has major knock-on effects on all areas of one’s life – even just 1 hour less sleep for 3 consecutive nights will have a major negative effect on your cognitive performance; although a few nights won’t have a major bearing on your long-term health. So don’t make a habit of missing sleep.


Depression and stress are related to significantly lowered memory performance. This can make it easier to be forgetful of the good moments in one’s days, hence a vicious cycle.


And when under stress or fear, we tend to fixate on the source of fear and ignore what’s going on around it or in the bigger picture. We’re often not prepared to perceive the details either because events such as crimes happen unexpectedly (well even when we’re mentally prepared we can still misremember things). Criminal photofits or identikits that were used in the past aren’t useful because we don’t recall faces through individual features, unless they’re particularly odd. Unfamiliar faces are difficult to recall, unlike your own – yet we cannot even recognise our own features easily when they’re pieced together jigsaw-style onto someone else’s face frame. People can have trouble matching a face to another even when they don’t need to rely on their memories e.g. a face in person with an ID card photo. And despite that popular saying – people generally find it hard to correctly identify the backs of their own hands in photographs!


Use all of your senses and immerse yourself contextually back into a scene you wish to recall. Firstly let the description of this memory flow however you want it to flow. Perhaps close your eyes to concentrate on your other senses for a moment. Involving more sensory information, like the sounds, smells or the temperature, can tap into more associative links and therefore make a memory easier to evoke. Then when this process is naturally exhausted, proceed to try to focus in on each area of importance to try to uncover as much detail as you can.


When interviewing others, such as eyewitnesses, don’t lead them in any way – ask open questions and ask the fewest questions to get the most information out. Any detail could be an important one so don’t interrupt their train of thought. (Ask them to recap the events in reverse order too because lies are often rehearsed in a forward linear order, so this may catch them out.)


Hypnosis and psychotherapies that try to help one retrieve lost fuzzy memories may help – but the risk is that it can be impossible to check whether such memories are genuine rather than implanted by the treatment itself?


As before, a major key to remembering things that are taught in school is to pay full attention to the lessons and to put the pieces of information firmly into your brain in the first place. You’ll logically never remember something you never properly grasped and ‘banked’ into your brain in the first place. You can use strong images, associations or links, organisation, journeys, stories, notes, or pure concentration and repetition. (Read Post No.: 0334 for more info.) Understand the material deeply rather than merely try to memorise answers by rote, and show an interest in it to set the information more solidly into your brain. Things that stand out are more likely to stick because they’re novel or interesting, so try to make things so.


If you think an answer that you’re sure you know but have forgotten is just on the tip of your mind – one technique is to vocally go letter-by-letter through the alphabet in the hope that the first letter will trigger the rest of the word.


Woof. In short, being forgetful happens but there are ways to reduce or delay what we forget in our heads if we put in the effort.


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