Why We Forget

  • Retrieval Failure: This is when a memory is simply lost in the dark deeps of the mind. It is still out there. The right cue, as a life saver tied during the formation of the memory, can pull it back to the shore of consciousness. (Who won the academy award for best supporting actress in 2000? What if I told you she is married to Brad Pitt?)
  • Ineffective Encoding: This is when some details are just not admitted and are left out in the cold without anyone noticing they are missing. Poor souls, they were unnecessary, superfluous or didn’t stand out enough to make the cut. (What is Mozart’s first name? What is on the back of a penny?)
  • Interference: This is when memories compete for the same reserved seat, maybe because both of them have a similar name tag or face. A stupid attendant, confused about the seating arrangements, might send any one of these away.
    If the attendant is “Proactive”, she will not disturb the memory that is already seated. (Have you ever found it difficult to recall the rules of a game because they is too similar to another an old favorite which you play regularly?)
    If the attendant is “Retroactive”, she will prefer letting the new memory sit in favor of the old one. (Have you ever forgotten how to play a game because you tried out another game more recently?)
  • Motivated Forgetting: This is when you (“Supression”), or your unconscious mind (“Repression”), do not want a memory to stay. They are too painful, sad, shameful or disgusting to keep around and so are banished to hopefully never show their ugly faces ever again. (“What happened? I don’t want to talk about it!”)
Icons by Noun Project (Nicky Knicky, Christoph Robausch, Kristen Gee, Lorena Salagre, Gabriel Ardiles, Plainicon, MD Delwar, Vivian Ziereisen, Lemon Liu, Edward Boatman).
  • This curve is can look very differently when a memory is recalled, even once. Reminders not only resuscitate memories, they make them more resilient. Better yet, repeating them continues to flatten the curve. It shouldn’t be too frequent, though, as suggested by some findings. Which leads us to…
  • “Spaced Repetition” is the ultimate way to beat the curve. A rehearsal schedule of ever increasing time periods is the most effective method we know to retain information over time. Our friend Hermann Ebbinghaus is responsible. He discovered the “Spacing Effect” and the “Learning Curve” which are the archenemies of his own Forgetting Curve.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Inventor, innovator, navigator.