“The existence of forgetting has never been proved: We only know that some things don't come to mind when we want them,” Friedrich Nietzsche once said.
Being forgetful causes a lot of anxiety in people today, especially with the increasing awareness of memory-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, new studies show that the human mind, not traumatized by serious injury or disease, never forgets. Experts say forgetting is not akin to losing information, but more so because there might be slip-up in the way the information was stored or in the way it is being retrieved.
But then, if the problem really lies on information-gathering and retrieval, why do most of us still tend to forget, no matter how hard we rack our brains? We forget where we put those keys, that much-needed item in the grocery list, or worse, those very important answers in an exam that might spell the difference between a passing mark and a failing grade.
A variety of factors contribute to the way our brain stores and supplies information. Although schools of thought and psychology are still debating on how the human mind works, they agree for one thing that memory is affected by our overall experience - from our genes, to the kind of childhood we had, down to the food we ate for breakfast this morning.
Some scientists liken the mind to a video camera because of its ability and nature to record everything a person experiences. Thus, looking for a particular event in your past is similar to searching for a scene in a video footage: a person can select the target scene, view it in slow motion or fast forward, even pause or zoom in to a particular detail. It is from this view that techniques to retrieve memory using hypnosis, truth serum, meditation, therapy and other similar forms come from.
On the other hand, despite the mind’s “videographic” eye, it was discovered that the mind does not have perfect archival properties, similar to a videotape that can gather mildew, lose sharpness, and age over time. The brain is also likened to a computer chip. While it may hold very large amount of information, its capacity to store data nevertheless has its limitations. To make way for “new data,” the mind reconstructs the stored information from time to time. Thus, events may not be perfectly remembered. Over time, some elements may be lost, details may get blurry or gradually be gone. “Trigger” elements such as a song, a photograph, or a kind of smell may bring back a long-forgotten memory. Still some fragments of our past can be gone forever.
In this chapter, we will discuss the ways and techniques on how humans, from scientists to mystics, deal with the trait of forgetting.
Forgetting is what we refer as the temporary or long-term loss of details, stimuli record, or memory materials that has been learned or stored in our brains. A forgotten item may be stored in memory but unavailable for retrieval or recall. There are several theories or explanation regarding forgetting.
- Decay of Memory Traces - This is the oldest explanation regarding forgetting. Memory is said to have a natural tendency to decay with time. When a word or a name of person is no longer relevant, such memory item may eventually lose its significant place inside our brain.
- Distortion of Memory - Some experiences may be learned or retrieved in a much distorted form. Such inaccuracy may lead to a different or false memory or may even defeat the process of retrieval since what are being accessed are wrong traces or leads in our brain.
- Interference - This experience may have been a result of in-between situations or uncontrollable variables during the experience of learning or memorizing. This also includes what occurs before, during, or after learning. Activities done before a task may confuse the retention process or what psychologists call as proactive inhibition. The more previously learned task there are, the greater the forgetting of the new tasks or operation. However, the more meaningful the material to be learned and retained, the less effect of such proactive kind of inhibition. On the other hand, an opposite effect happens during the retroactive inhibition, in which there are interfering activities occurring after a learning period. Usually, people who have to learn a second task forget more of the first than those who are given only one task to do. That is why, it would be advisable to master a particular task or skill before going on to the next activity, because retaining too much information require complex interactions of your memory and psychomotor skill. Such example is proven during the period of learning how to drive. Motor skills and various movements are necessary and may sometimes look confusing at first since they require synchronicity. However as we slowly start to learn to put individual bodily tasks into a cohesive and unified action, we begin to think in a very precise and completely organized manner. This means we have already learned or memorized different tasks and have already put them into order. Therefore, in order to remember more, one must have mastery of a particular task or skill before engaging in other activities which require particular specialization.
- Motivated Forgetting - This is a variable in forgetting which involve the individual’s motive or desire to remember or forget. People seem to repress certain memories or suppress the process of retention or memory retrieval. More often remembered are pleasant events than unpleasant ones. Emotion also plays an important aspect in this explanation regarding forgetting. Some people prefer to forget experiences that are sad or traumatic. This may be a wise move. If you spend less time recollecting your failures and disappointments in life, you’ll have better capacity to retain the positive and essential information in your mind. Because negative thoughts aggravate stress, you should learn to relax and forget about past mistakes. The past is done. Focus and retain only positive thoughts.
- Lack of Cues or Guides - We are able to retrieve material to the extent that we have cues to remind us of it. When we remember something, it is as if we search our memory with the help of cues or guides that point the way to the desired materials. When we forget, it is because we may lack the necessary cues or guides in getting back the information stored in the vast neural connection of our brain.
Here are some effective techniques to overcome forgetfulness or absentmindedness:
- Write down your detailed list of “things to do.” Group or arrange your tasks into categories (and subcategories if applicable). Cross off activities that you have done and add new tasks along the way. If possible, stick your notes in objects that are familiar to you (television, refrigerator, entrance door, etc.)
- Use your imagination and humor. Let’s say you have an appointment with a potential client, Mr. Anderson, this coming Friday. If you love to watch TV every night, imagine Mr. Anderson acting like a clown on TV. You may even see him coming right out of the boob tube and saying, “See you on Friday!” To remember Friday better, you can visualize Mr. Anderson on your TV screen dressed as a chef and “frying” (Friday) some delicious foods. Come up with funny images that will help you remember your schedule. The funnier and more exaggerated, the better.
- Associate a task with a routine activity or with something that you regularly do. Let’s say you always forget to bring your cell phone every time you go to work. See to it that before you brush your teeth or take a shower, you put your cell phone inside your bag. Just make a task that you often forget a part of your daily routine.
- Create a visual hint. Let’s say you invited your boss to dinner at your house on Tuesday night, and you must buy some potatoes for the dessert you’ll be cooking. With your very busy schedule, you can easily forget to buy it. To aid you in remembering, you may put a pack of potato chips or a toy potato at the top of your TV or in the middle of your dining table to remind you of the task that needs to be done.
- Focus and say your task out loud. Have you ever experienced coming up to your friend because you want to ask something? Next thing you know, you completely forgot the things you’re going to inquire him. Well, don’t panic. Many people have been in your situation and you’re not alone. With today’s hectic lifestyle, even those with good memory can forget what they’re thinking about in a split second. The solution here is to focus on one task at a time, and repeatedly say out loud what you’re going to do: “I’m going to ask John about the rules in joining his contest.” If in case you still forget about what you’re going to do, try going back to your place of origin where you said the task out loud. Oftentimes, that specific place would help you to recall your task by associating that location with what you have said.
- Don’t procrastinate. If you have a certain activity that needs to be done, get it over with as early as you can. When you need to pay your bills, do it now before it becomes overdue and before it starts charging interest. If you really can’t attend to it now, then use your imagination, visual reminders, or other helpful tools to remember it.
- Get a companion. Some people living in solidarity can become absentminded and can suffer memory loss. That’s because they don’t have anyone to talk to, so their mental capacity is limited and not utilized well. Having a smart companion to discuss various topics with, and to share your knowledge and experiences with, can sharpen you memory. They can even act as your back-up. Just tell them to remember something and you’ll have another memory working on your behalf. Just be nice to your buddy.