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The Art of Forgetting

The Print aims to give you a leg up into this new year of Uni, examining psychological studies into the concept of memory, and unveiling how we can learn to manipulate our own.

As University students, we are compelled to retain as much information related to our field of study as humanly possible. Naturally, this leads us to become extremely competent at forgetting said information. Whether it’s because your flat mate keeps interrupting you, asking to borrow your milk, or that strange scent in your kitchen that keeps wafting into your room; most of the information we learn escapes from us. But why does it happen? Is there any way it can be prevented?

The psychological study of memory has been around since the beginnings of civilisation. In 5th Century BC, the Ancient Greeks acted as pioneers for the expansion of memory; utilising mnemonics and rhymes to aid with memory retention. Whilst these retention techniques are still commonly used today, memory studies have advanced far enough to identify the science behind forgetting. A breakthrough occurred in 1960, when American psychologist L. Postman discovered the existence of ‘retroactive interference’, an idea which suggests that learning new information can displace and overwrite existing data in our minds. So, next time you’re losing fragments of your soul and consciousness at 4am, reading page after page of new textbook information, try to keep this in mind. As your mind processes new information, previously learned facts can be displaced and forgotten. Further, cognitive psychologist Miller produced a now famous study in 1956, known as the ‘magic number 7 (plus or minus two)’ experiment. In this research, Miller provided evidence for the capacity of short term memory, concluding that the average adult can hold between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory. For Miller, information is organised into ‘slots’ in our mind. If information is ‘chunked’ together and related, then it can fill one slot, therefore leaving more available space in the short term memory.

I know this all looks rather bleak and suggests that you’ll never remember more than seven things at a time, but fret not. Displacement is ultimately inevitable, but the key to retaining information is repetition. In order to keep a segment of information in your memory, the best ways are to: A) Repeat the process of learning the information every day/week/month, or whenever you feel it necessary; and B) Linking the new information to an existing fact/thought in your mind. Whilst both of these methods are effective at preventing displacement of important facts – method B is particularly interesting. By creating a psychological link between new information and existing information (through a song, quote, memory, picture, or feeling), there is a higher chance of the newly learned information being recalled correctly.
So, the next time you’re sweating the night before an exam, try blasting some tunes, and replace memorable song lyrics with facts. When you recall the song in your head during the exam, it might just work. (Disclaimer: if it doesn’t work, don’t sue me).

Another notably study into the mystery of memory improvement was carried out by German academic Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. By conducting a series of experiments focused on the recall of nonsensical information through association, Ebbinghaus discovered that approximately nine hours after a set of information is learned, more than 60% of it is lost. Whilst information slipping away from us almost seems inevitable, Ebbinghaus devised several ways in which memory can be improved:

1. Understanding:
Meaningful memories are remembered for approximately 10x longer than meaningless ones. Therefore, associating facts with events and emotions, and truly understanding what the content means, will ensure a higher chance of correct recall.

2. Recollection:
Recalling information you’ve stored is essential. Twenty four hours after information is retained two-thirds of it is lost. Repeating learning over a long interval of time helps avoid this – so put your knowledge to practice in every day life, and it might just stick around a bit longer.

3. Repetition:
Interestingly, information learned at the start and end of a study session is most likely to be recalled. To avoid the information learned in the middle of a session slipping away, always recap what you’ve covered.

4. Relaxation:
The ‘zeigarnik effect’ suggests that information is more likely to be recalled if it experiences interruptions. Therefore, taking frequent breaks in studying will assist in memory retention. See this as an excuse to have an hour of study, then take yourself off into another dimension of thought; go grab a sandwich. Slip into a relaxing lull of existential despair. Then go back for another hour session.

Apart from creating the beautiful acronym, ‘URRR’, these four methods mentioned above should prove useful when tackling noble foes such as essays, deadlines and exams.

But, if you do forget things, as we all inevitably will, don’t be too hard on yourself. Each memory is different, and the human mind today still exists as an unknown metropolis of possibility waiting to be unlocked. As Harvard’s Professor of Psychology, Daniel Schacter, says: ‘We don’t want a memory that is going to store every bit of every experience. We would be overwhelmed with clutter of useless trivia’. So, as long as you can remember your name, you’re doing just fine.

Image: Nayara Fakir

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