Forgetfulness: Why Does It Happen?

Why do we forget? Factors such as emotion and attention are fundamental in the development of this process.
Forgetfulness: Why Does It Happen?
María Paula Rojas

Written and verified by the psychologist María Paula Rojas.

Last update: 13 October, 2022

At some time or another, you’ve probably entered a room and wondered what you were doing there. And if you were to ask yourself what you had for dinner last Tuesday, you probably wouldn’t remember or would certainly have a hard time doing so. This is related to a phenomenon that occurs in your brain. As a rule, it’s helpful, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t occasionally play tricks on you. It’s called forgetfulness.

It’s important to understand how your attention works, and how it combines its functioning with memory so that you might adequately remember one piece of information yet forget another. Indeed, it’s perfectly natural to wonder why you sometimes forget important data.

Mind of a person with a window inside

How does memory work?

Memory is the ability to retain, preserve, and retrieve information. It’s extremely important as a good part of your identity resides in it. In addition, it collaborates in the configuration of your way of acting and processing information. In fact, experience is usually your main guide when making decisions.

Through memory, you obtain the necessary knowledge to understand the world in which you live, giving you the ability to collect new information and organize it. Thus, you can give it meaning and retrieve it when necessary. Memory focuses on three fundamental processes.

  • Encoding. The stimuli are transformed into mental representations.
  • Storage. The data is retained so it can be used later.
  • Recovery. The way in which the retained information is accessed. This process can occur either voluntarily or spontaneously.

Multiple classifications exist when it comes to memory. We’re going to focus on the classification that takes temporality as a criterion. Thus, we speak of sensory or immediate memory. This records the information that briefly comes from the environment.

Secondly, there’s short-term memory. Its function is to analyze and organize information. It’s also responsible for linking it to your experiences. However, its capacity is limited so it’s also linked to forgetfulness.

Lastly, there’s long-term memory. It contains all the knowledge and experiences that you have throughout your life. Its capacity is unlimited and it’s organized for easy access.

As you know, forgetting represents the inability to voluntarily remember necessary information in a specific context. It implies problems in the development of some activities. That’s because you often depend on this information. For example, in an exam.

Currently, it’s considered that there are multiple factors linked to forgetfulness. Among the main ones are:

  • Interference. This occurs when there’s competition between the experiences that you live through. There are two types of interference. The first is retroactive. In this kind, new learning affects your recall of information you previously learned. The second is proactive interference. Here, the information you’ve already learned makes it difficult for you to learn new information.
  • Lack of Processing or Recovery. In this case, two situations can occur. One of them occurs when you didn’t initially process the information properly, hence the storage process is affected. Also, if you haven’t recovered information in a while, you might forget all or part of it. It’s known as the forgetting curve.
  • Inappropriate context. Information is sometimes more difficult to remember if you learned it in a different environment. As a rule, information is easier to remember if your attempt at retrieval occurs in the same context in which you stored it. For example, you make a list for the store before leaving home, but you leave something out. You arrive at the store and have the feeling that something is missing, something that you only remember when you get back home because that’s where you were when you included it on your mental list.

Associations and forgetfulness

The quality and quantity of information that you might forget depend a great deal on how you learned it. In the event that you learned it in a superficial way, the trace it leaves behind will be far more fragile.

On the contrary, when you memorize new knowledge by establishing associations with what you already know, it’s more difficult to forget.

Attention: a fundamental process to avoid forgetting

You have the ability to control your attention. In a way, you can free it so that the environment directs it or you can put yourself in control and direct your focus of concentration where you want.

Therefore, when you want to memorize something, you focus all your attention on it. Indeed, subconsciously, you know that this is what helps. In fact, you can get really upset when someone or something tries to distract you.

This is fundamental, because attention, understood as concentration, is extremely important for quality coding. Or, for generating a strong imprint associated with memory.

Woman suffering from forgetfulness

Delaying the process of forgetting

There are several processes you can carry out to strengthen your memory and thus reduce your forgetfulness. One strategy is to increase your attention/concentration at the moment of assimilation. Another is to separate the relevant from the irrelevant information or divide it into layers so that the memory of what’s important triggers your recovery of the details.

Repeating and making sense of information is another strategy you can use to avoid forgetting. In this case, attending to and properly organizing the information helps you learn it. You can also use tools to make information clearer. For example, if you need to learn the names of certain concepts, you can generate acronyms and form a word.

On the other hand, making sense of the information that you want to learn will help make the encoding and storage processes much faster and more effective. Also, when it connects with information you’ve already learned, it’ll really help you to remember it.


The process of forgetting information is natural and vital for the proper functioning of memory. Often, you remember what your brain considers vital and useful when carrying out a specific activity. Even so, it’s important to keep in mind that motivation, emotion, and attention are fundamental aspects of this process.

Therefore, if you want to reduce your forgetfulness, you have to select the information that’s really relevant. Similarly, associating the information with information you’ve already learned will help you store it better, thus facilitating your memory retrieval.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bernal, I. M. (2005). Psicobiología del aprendizaje y la memoria. CIC. Cuadernos de Información y Comunicación, 10, 221-233.
  • Fuenmayor, G., & Flores, Y. V. (2008). La percepción, la atención y la memoria como procesos cognitivos utilizados para la comprensión textual. Única: Revista de Artes y Humanidades, 22, 187-202.
  • Ramos, F. (2012). Memoria humana. Ed McGraw Hill Education. pp. 133-152.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.