What is Forgetting? Why Do We Forget? Explained

What is Forgetting?

Why forgetting occurs is a question people enquire always about.

The term forgetting refers to the loss of information already stored in long-term memory. It is also known as a passive mental process in which we can’t recall the experience or information we have already learned. It is a failure to retain what has been acquired.

Simply, forgetting is the opposite of remembering.

Forgetting has both positive and negative consequences in life. Positive in the sense that, it saves us from painful memories, to enter into consciousness that makes our life miserable, it is also a convenient excuse to relieve us.

Negative in the sense that, failure to recall the material in an important event or examination, cause us to be embarrassed, and lose the opportunity. People want to remember their skills and knowledge, but want to forget unpleasant or painful experiences or memories.

According to Munn “Forgetting is the loss, permanent or temporary, of the ability to recall or recognize something learned earlier.”

According to Drever: “Forgetting means failure at any time to recall an experience, when attempting to do so, or to perform an action previously learned.”

Types of Forgetting

There are various types of forgetting, some types are as follows,

  • Natural Forgetting: Forgetting occurs with the lapse of time in a quite normal way without any intention of forgetting on the part of the individual.
  • Morbid or Abnormal Forgetting: In this type of forgetting an individual forgets his things or information according to his wishes.
  • General Forgetfulness: In this type, is when one suffers a total loss in one’s recalling some previous learning or fails to recall.
  • Specific Forgetfulness: This forgetting is when the individual forgets only one or the other specific part of his earlier learning.
  • Physical (Organic) Forgetfulness: In this type, is when one loses his memory on account of the factors of age, diseases, biological malfunctioning of the brain & nervous system, accidents & other intoxicating materials.
  • Psychological Forgetfulness: This forgetting occurs due to factors like stress, anxiety, conflicts, temper provocation, lack of interest, repression, or other emotional & psychic difficulties, etc.

Causes of Forgetting

What causes us to forget? Psychologists have proposed several explanations. These explanations help to understand the nature of what we remember and why we forget. Some of the causes/reasons or theories of forgetting are:

  • Decay theory
  • Interference
  • Motivated forgetting
  • Retrieval failure
  • Memory dysfunction

Let’s know about these causes,

Decay Theory

The decay theory is the oldest explanation of forgetting. It is the most widely accepted common sense held by Layman in understanding forgetting. It explains that forgetting takes place simply over time as a result of a fading memory trace.

This explanation assumes that learning leaves a “trace” in the brain, the memory trace involves some sort of physical change that was not present before learning.

With time the normal metabolic processes and chemical reactions of the brain cause a fading or decay of the memory so that traces of material once learned gradually disintegrate and eventually disappear altogether. These neurophysiological changes fade with disuse.

For example, when we see a picture it can be recalled in detail but as time passage on, the details are rapidly forgotten and the main outlines are remembered. Forgetting stories, pictures, and memories, a definition suggests a process of fading with time.

Decay theory has been discarded by psychologists as being incorrect and incomplete until recent years, since no direct evidence supports it. Psychologists argue that forgetting is more complicated than fading of memory traces with time.

The acceptance of the three-stage conception of memory has brought the decay theory back into limited favor because it is difficult to disprove empirically. It fits with many observed memory phenomena. There are many instances in which learning is retained over long periods with no intervening practice.

  • Motor skills are not easily forgotten. We do not forget to swim, drive a car, or type even though we may not have used these skills for many years.
  • Some verbal materials we have learned earlier may be retained over a long period. We may be recalled quite accurately a poem we memorized in our nursery class.
  • Another argument against decay theory is that people in their old age often remember their events of youth. Despite a lot of arguments against decay theory, it can be denied that some forgetting may occur through the organic changes taking place.

Interference Theory

Interference theory suggests that forgetting occurs because similar memories interfere with the storage or retrieval of information. It explains that memory failure is not the cause of the passage of time but is due to the intrusion of similar memories into one another.

What we do in the interval between learning and recall is important in making us forget.

For example, students often become confused when two similar theories or two similar-sounding words in a foreign language are learned around the same time. It seems finding the right path in the neural system is difficult if two are close together and look alike.

Cognitive psychologists distinguished two kinds of interference – retroactive and proactive interferences.

Retroactive Interference: Information that was learned after the material we want to remember may hinder the recall of the earlier learned material. This process is called retroactive interference, also called retroactive inhibition.

Sometimes it is important to remember old addresses and telephone numbers but new addresses and phone numbers are the only ones that come to mind. As a result, in retroactive inhibition, the new learning may interfere with the old.

Proactive Interference: When old memories that are already stored may be recalled instead of the specific, recent memory we are seeking, this effect is called proactive interference. It is sometimes also called proactive inhibition, which occurs when old information hinders our memory of the new information.

For example, when you move to a new house or apartment you have a new address and phone number. Even when you find yourself using the old address or phone number. Sometimes this problem lasts for years.

Motivated Forgetting (Repression)

Another cause of forgetting is motivated forgetting or forgetting for a reason. The concept of motivated forgetting comes after Sigmund Freud, who suggested that we forget information because it threatens us in some way.

Freud believed that the conscious mind often deals with unpleasant or dangerous information by pushing it into unconsciousness.

The unconscious mind stores primitive instinctual motives, memories, and emotions that are threatening to the conscious mind. It is done unconsciously through the process of repression. The contents of the unconscious mind are not normally accessible to consciousness, it is not forgotten.

The concept of repression played a key role in Sigmund Freud’s theory of human personality in causing psychological disorders. Repression is a defense mechanism using which threatening or painful thoughts and desires are excluded from consciousness.

It is often referred to as selective forgetting. Freud’s book “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” described all forgetting are motivated.

He revealed slips of the tongue, forgetting names, and appointment duties, are due to motivated forgetting because people want to protect the ego from anxiety. Unpleasant memories, guilt feelings, frustrations, blunders, and shameful events, that are too painful to remember are forced to forget taking defense against anxiety.

This helps to explain why people generally remember pleasant events more often than unpleasant ones. The unpleasant memories have been repressed, for example, a man may habitually forget his umbrella because he thinks carrying an umbrella makes him old and clumsy.

Retrieval Failure

Retrieval is when we recall or bring a memory into consciousness. Retrieval is facilitated by the organization of the stored material. When there are appropriate retrieval cues memory is easily evident.

A particular odor, name, or another stimulus arouses recall of forgotten events, objects, names, etc. Retrieval cues help to bring the information to mind at times when it cannot be recalled spontaneously.

Retrieval failure occurs when we fail to encode information or when our stored memories decay. Information sometimes gets into our brains, and though we know it is here, we can not get it out.

A person’s name may lie on tip of the tongue (TOT) waiting to be retrieved. Without appropriate retrieval cues stored in the long-term memory one can not recall, thus forgetting occurs. Retrieval cues are influenced by context-dependent memory and state-dependent retrieval.

Context-dependent memory suggests that material learned in one environment or context is easier to remember in a similar environment. State-dependent retrieval refers to the internal state of the individual.

It is a fact that we find it easier to recall information stored in long-term memory when our internal state is similar to that which existed when the information was first entered into memory.

For example, studying in one location and testing the recall in a very different place makes people very difficult to recall the material studied earlier.

Memory Dysfunctions

Memory losses due to some problems with the brain are related to this category. Amnesia and Alzheimer’s are the two main memory disorders causing us to forget.

Amnesia – Amnesia is a partial or total inability to recall or identify past experiences. It is the “disease of memory”. In the amnesic state the individual can not remember his name, does not know how old he is or where he resides and does not recognize parents, relatives, or friends, yet his basic habit patterns such as his ability to read, talk, and so on remain intact, and he seems quite normal aside from the amnesia. Amnesia occurs after experiencing physical or psychological trauma.

Alzheimer’s Disease – Alzheimer’s disease is one dementia in which the individual has a deterioration of memory. Dementia may be due to a small stroke, a brain tumor, or alcoholism which progressively damages the brain, causing mental erosion.

In Alzheimer’s disease, the victim shows progressive loss of intelligence, memory, and general awareness. Alzheimer’s destroys memory first then reasoning and language even the brightest of minds.

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