I Can’t Remember

The process of learning requires not only hearing and applying but also forgetting and then remembering again. John Gray

I have been thinking a lot about memory recently. A project I am working on “Faded Recollections” has stirred up memories and mis-remembered amalgams of feelings, senses, stories and family. During Beakerhead we heard Dr. Julia Shaw speak about her book “The Memory Illusion” where she “demonstrates the absolute centrality of memory to our existence, and explores an astonishing variety of ways in which it can go awry” Last night we saw “Finding Dory” with one of our grandchildren (actually the second time we have seen it since June) and I was reminded about my frailty and imagination. “I suffer from short term memory loss, it runs in my family. At least I think it does.” –Dory

From remanufacturing vivid stories about cherished childhood experiences to feeling like there is something I am forgetting, I pondered where forgetting comes from and what purpose it might serve.

According to psychology there are at least two theories for why we forget; Trace decay theory states that forgetting occurs as a result of the automatic decay or fading of the memory trace. Trace decay theory focuses on time and the limited duration of short term memory. Displacement theory posits that we can hold x +/- 4 memories ( where x = between 3 and 7 depending on the theorist) in our short term memory (STM). When we get beyond x capacity and attempt to add another memory, it displaces one from the inventory.

Neither theory actually answers the why. What function could evolution have been working toward when we developed or incorporated these lapses of memory into humans.

Elizabeth Loftus, has identified four major reasons why people forget: retrieval failure, interference, failure to store, and motivated forgetting. Retrieval failure seems to be the same thing as trace decay. Interference theory seems a lot like displacement but Loftus suggests that we can proactively or retroactively interfere with memories that are alike. She doesn’t suggest that older memories are tossed out but that they are over powered by newer ones that are similar. I had this conversation with someone this week when he suggested that as I tell a story that he has heard many times, I don’t seem to be remembering the original event but a composite of the original and the minor embellishments and changes I have made in the tellings.

Failure to store has less to do with forgetting and more to do with the fact that it never made it into long-term memory in the first place. (the result would seem to be the same) We may only be encoding general details rather than specifics about an object, piece of data, idea or event.

Motivated forgetting seems closer to what I was trying t put my finger on (if I remember correctly, although after all the reading my motivation might have been altered). Sometimes, we may actively work to forget memories, especially those of traumatic or disturbing events or experiences. I can willingly suppress an unpleasant memory or unconsciously repress one.

If I have a presentation or a test ahead of me and I don’t prepare sufficiently and bomb and you ask me a month later how it went, I might say ” I don’t remember” and if I have suppressed it that would be true. Some psychologists (not Dr Shaw) believe that repressed memories can be recaptured after counselling but even when experiments and data have shown this to be true it was around a very specific set of experiences so can’t be generalized.

I think I understand some of the how and why of forgetting and it is something that is in a big wheel house of interests so I will continue to skim and peruse the interesting case studies.

It still doesn’t explain why or how I can forget where I put my phone last night or my keys 5 minutes ago.

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