From forgetting where you left your keys to forgetting to return a phone call, memory failures are an almost daily occurrence. Forgetting is so common that we typically rely on numerous methods to help us remember important information such as jotting down notes in a daily planner or scheduling important events on your phone's calendar.
As you are frantically searching for your missing car keys, it may seem that that the information about where you left them is permanently gone from your memory. However, forgetting is generally not about actually losing or erasing this information from your long-term memory. Forgetting typically involves a failure in memory retrieval. While the information is somewhere in your long-term memory, you are not able to actually retrieve and remember it.
The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve:
Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the first to scientifically study forgetting. In experiments where is used himself as the subject, Ebbinghaus tested his memory using three-letter nonsense syllables. He relied on such nonsense words because relying on previously known words would have made use of his existing knowledge and associations in his memory.
In order to test for new information, Ebbinghaus tested his memory for periods of time ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days. He then published his findings in 1885 in Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.
His results, plotted in what is known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, revealed a relationship between forgetting and time. Initially, information is often lost very quickly after it is learned. Factors such as how the information was learned and how frequently it was rehearsed play a role in how quickly these memories are lost.
The forgetting curve also showed that forgetting does not continue to decline until all of the information is lost. At a certain point, the amount of forgetting levels off. What exactly does this mean? It indicates that information stored in long-term memory is surprisingly stable.
Why We Forget:
Of course, many factors can help contribute to forgetting. Sometimes you might be distracted when you learn new information, which might mean that you never truly retain the information long enough to remember it later. Well-known memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has proposed four key explanations for why forgetting occurs. Learn more about some of the most common explanations for forgetting.