What Did I….? The Reasons Why We Forget

It happens to us all. We walk into a room and forget why we are in there and what we meant to do. We start talking and forget what we are going to say. We forget that item from the store that we were sure we would remember. Forgetting is a common problem that can be easily explained, as well as tips and tricks to help you remember the big and small tasks. In essence, the information stored in your memory becomes inaccessible and unavailable at times, either in your short-term memory or long-term memory. According to memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, forgetting information can be broken into four reasons: retrieval failure, interference, failure to store, and motivated forgetting.

Retrieval Failure: 

Retrieval failure is the inability to remember something, or if you are positive you know something but can’t seem to recall it. Part of this step is the decay theory. This theory states that the fewer times you retrieve a memory, the more it will fade away. Eventually, the memory will disappear and will be lost. Retrieval failure happens mainly in short-term memory.


There are two types of interference, both relating to the phenomenon in which memories can compete with each other and push to the front of a person’s mind. Proactive interference occurs when an old memory interferes with a new memory, making it more difficult to remember recent things. The opposite of this theory is retroactive interference, where new information interferes with the ability to remember older memories and information. One way to help ease the competition between memories is by rehearsing or constantly remembering new information and memories.

Failure to Store: 

Think about the items on your mental grocery list before writing them down. Do you need to know these items five years from now? Probably not – you’ll just need to remember them for a short time. This memory will never make it to long-term memory. Failure to store information can be seen in the common penny experiment. Researchers have asked participants to identify the correct version of the United States penny out of a group of incorrect pennies. Studies have found that most participants remember the shape and color, but not the minor details of the coin. This shows that the only details you need to remember are passed along to your long-term memory and to correctly identify a penny, a person doesn’t have to know the smaller words and images. Therefore, some of our short-term memories only store the information needed for the bigger pictures and long-term memory. Want to try the penny experiment for yourself? A Google search, “penny memory experiment,” pulls up many websites with penny images. I used the Common Cents website at annex.exploratorium.edu/exhibits/common cents/. Trust me; it is harder than it looks.

Motivated Forgetting: 

There are some things a person doesn’t want to remember. Maybe it is a traumatic or painful event or experience. Whether you realize it or not, a person is consciously and subconsciously eliminating these types of memories through motivated forgetting. Through suppression, a person is consciously trying to forget things and repression is the unconscious form of forgetting. Bad memories are less likely to be discussed or remembered, allowing the brain extra motivation to forget.

Tips and Tricks to Improve Your Memory:  

One of the best ways to strengthen your memory is by rehearsing or continually remembering important information and events. Other techniques include:

  • Chunking: Grouping pieces of information together, such as remembering foods by where they are located in the grocery store.
  • Patterns: The human brain thrives on patterns, whether it is through using numbers, mnemonics, or acronyms.
  • Good Habits:  Getting enough sleep and exercise is always helpful.
  • Foods:  Eating foods like walnuts, blueberries, whole grains, and olive oils to boost your memory.

The brain is a complex creature with a mind of its own. Forgetting memories and pieces of information is a daily reoccurrence. Just like your body, your mind needs exercising as well and will help improve your memory.



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