The Study of Forgetfulness

February 7, 2020
Forgetfulness is a curious phenomenon, and a captivating wonderment to say the least. In this article, we attempt to define what it is "to forget", why it happens, and why it's not always such a bad thing.

Memory has been the focal point of psychology for centuries. One of the most fascinating, and often frustrating, aspects of memory is forgetfulness. Interestingly, the type of information, as well as situational contexts, play a key role in our ability to remember. Research on memory is useful not only for day-to-day functioning but also for a better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Here, we’ll discuss the two types of forgetfulness, what it means “to forget”, and why scientists say the act of forgetting is indemonstrable. In the words of Nietzsche,

“The existence of forgetting has never been proved; we only know that some things do not come to our mind when we want them to.”

Memory is a complex machine.

Why do people forget things?

“Forgetting” occurs when a “footprint” of information in your memory becomes fragmented. Either poor memory storage, preservation, or recall occurs when you forget something.

As the “print” becomes fragmented, you gradually lose details, until, eventually, this particular memory is completely forgotten. In scientific terms, a memory is forgotten when the neural network has disappeared. One can only determine if a memory is lost forever through the process of memory recovery.

While we can’t demonstrate the act of forgetting, we can define it as that which, at a given moment, causes a person to be unable to remember something. It doesn’t matter if the information will be recovered in the future or not; we can say that the person has forgotten it at that moment.

Two types of forgetfulness

In a study on forgetfulness, scientists identified two types of forgetting: accidental forgetting and motivated forgetting. This information is useful in the treatment of psychological disorders in which memory plays an essential role, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Accidental forgetting happens without the intention to forget. Schacter (2003) claims that accidental forgetting is necessary for the good functioning of one’s memory. It’s a human trait that allows us to be adaptable and flexible and to work efficiently. If we never forgot anything, we’d have a “glass ceiling” effect in terms of all we could memorize. However, memory isn’t unlimited.

Thus, it’s a good thing that people forget pieces of information that aren’t useful to them anymore. An example would be the license plate of your first car. If it isn’t useful for the present, then it’s interfering with memories that are useful.

The second type of forgetting is motivated forgetting. Motivated forgetting occurs when someone uses processes or behaviors that aim to decrease accessibility to a memory. For example, if you experience a traumatic situation, you may try to forget this memory by avoiding anything that makes you think about it. By not recalling the memory, its “footprint” may gradually fade over time.

The most common types of accidental forgetting

Gordon (1995) studied the types of information that people often forget accidentally. This list explains why some people are “bad with names” or always forget where they left their keys.

The most common types of accidental forgetting are:

  • Names. When you meet someone for the first time, you’re often in distracting situations. Being distracted causes the “coding” of the new information to be weaker. New information gets coded by linking it to something else, usually to yourself. Because a new name or face often aren’t related to you (yet), this makes the codification more difficult. Therefore, the likelihood that you’ll forget it is even greater.
  • Where did I put my keys? Setting down your keys is such an automatic process because you do it daily and, therefore, you typically don’t pay attention when you do it. In fact, you’re more likely to know where you placed a birthday gift from a friend two days ago than where your keys are.
  • “I can’t remember if I’ve already told you…” Sometimes, you find yourself telling someone information you had already shared with them. This is a source attribution error, in which you inaccurately remember details or context of a prior situation.

Other types of frequently forgotten elements are faces, addresses, forgetting what you’re about to do, what you were saying, or what you’ve already done (for example, turning off the light).

A woman holding her head because she forgot something.

The Seven Sins of Memory (Schacter, 2003)

It’s important to take care of your memory. However, it’s common for people to mistakenly do things that encourage forgetfulness. The following seven “errors” can contribute to your memory not functioning at its best:

  • Transience. The “footprint” of a memory deteriorates due to the passage of time.
  • Absent-mindedness. When people are distracted, stressed, or multi-tasking, the codification of information is weaker. The memory can only process a certain amount of information at one time, which is why selective attention is important.
  • Blocking. “Crashes” occur when you can’t seem to access a specific memory in a particular moment.
  • Misattribution.
  • Suggestibility.
  • Persistence. Recalling a memory repeatedly can actually change the way you remember its content.
  • Bias. Your attitudes and emotions can alter a memory and interfere with its reliability.

The first three “sins” are errors of omission, while the others are errors of commission (the person remembers something incorrectly).

Finally, forgetfulness is common in conditions such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dissociative disorders. Research on forgetfulness is helpful in treating these agonizing disorders, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.