The Science Behind Forgetting and How We can Overcome It

The brain is a magnificent organ that traditionally holds billions of brain cells and thousands of neurons. Yet, incredibly when it comes to the simple task of processing day to day experiences into memory, it can easily become overwhelmed. Forgetting something is a natural process of the human brain as we all experience different stages of natural memory decay. However, finding ways to improve our memory would be the inevitable step to overcome excessive memory loss.

Based on a study done by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, it was determined that in approximatively 20 minutes you can forget about 42% of what you learned. In about 1 hour you can forget up to 56%.

A comprehensive scientific research diligently done by Ruhr-Universität and the University Hospital of Gießen and Marburg carefully analysed the process of forgetting. They determined it was identified within 2 areas of the brain- the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The hippocampus, an integral region for memory, is regulated by the prefrontal cortex which is the region of the brain that actively controls over memory processes through non-invasive magnetic or electrical stimulants. We forget when the activity within the hippocampus fluctuates to a different frequency where processed information is no longer encoded. For example, extensive damage to the hippocampus region in the brain can bring symptoms often seen in existing illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.

Moreover, such fluctuations can be derived from the following reasons:

Memory Loss, which is everything that we learn carries a ‘trace’ in the brain and if it is not reinforced, we experience memory decay or loss.

Interference, that is, the brain can overlap and distort old memories with new information.

Storage failure, that is, sometimes ‘insignificant’ information often at times is not stored for long-term usage due to their ‘irrelevance’ at that time.

Repressing memories, that is, memories derived from traumatic events are often suppressed as a coping mechanism.

The basis of information transmission within the brain is simply a process of memory encoding and retrieval. When it is not lost, it is properly stored in the brain in networks of neuron nerve cells. Specifically, dendrites which are extensions of the neurons, receive the information from the axon neurons, which send information. This connection is how information is shared within the brain. The more connections are formed the easier and faster it is for us to access such memories. Weak connections results in memory decay.

Ironically, in a 2017 study published in Neuron, researchers have conducted an interesting hypothesis confirming the brain deliberately forgets information to store more relevant data necessary for everyday survival. Blake Richards, co-author of the paper mentioned;

“Our memories ultimately are there to help us make decisions, to act in the world in an intelligent manner…Evolution cares about whether or not you are an individual who’s making appropriate decisions in the environment to maximize your chances of survival.”

However, it is not entirely favourable enough for us to rely solely on what information our brain may consider as relevant or not. Hence, we can take simple steps to help the brain retain information. Here are some easy ways for doing so:

Getting enough sleep. As basic as it may sound, allowing the body to get sufficient sleep is the most practical way to help the brain store information. During the slow-wave and REM stages of sleep, memories are transferred from the hippocampus to a permanent memory storage system around the prefrontal cortex.

Eliminate stress. Stress can easily interfere with the way how memory is encoded and retrieved. The body under stress creates hormones that impair long-term memory but enhance short-term memory (usually emotionally charged).

Simple Repetition. Strengthening the memory through repetition allows the brain to make information more permanent. Furthermore, learning in creative and unfamiliar ways makes the experience of acquiring such information more memorable which can then be easily retained in the hippocampus.

As impressive as the brain can be, it is more than likely that we will forget things, whether intentionally or accidentally. Despite this natural fault, there are ways to understand the cause and help to combat forgetfulness which allows us to function efficiently daily.

References:

  1. Discover the science behind forgetting and conquer it, Pluralsight
  2. Neuroscientists Say Forgetting Things May Be an Essential Part of Our Brain Function, June 2017, Futurism
  3. This is how the brain forgets on purpose, September 2018, ScienceDaily
  4. Forgetting uses more brain power than remembering, March 2019, ScienceDaily
  5. Why we forget the things we learn and how to remember more effectively, May 2017, Forbes