By Molly Rose Teuke
“What is memory without forgetting? To have proper memory function, you have to have forgetting.” — Oliver Hardt, McGill University
Where’s my phone? I can’t find my glasses. What is her name again? How could I forget to call my mother?! Such is daily life in the fast lane. It seems that our busy lives leave us ever more prone to forgetfulness and that can be annoying.
Yet, what if forgetting served a purpose? What if it were, in Hardt’s words, “not a failure of memory, but a function of it?” Hardt, a cognitive psychologist studying the neurobiology of memory at Montreal’s McGill University, is not alone in starting to give forgetting some respect. Daniel Schacter, author of “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers,” believes our memory system, for all its foibles, is highly adaptive. In his research at Harvard University, he views memory flaws as “the cost we pay for benefits in memory that make it work as well as it does most of the time.”
In a counterintuitive quirk of memory, recalling something you’ve forgotten is more than just a memory replay. Recall strengthens the memory, making it easier to recall the next time. This has significant implications for learning, which we’ll address in an upcoming column.
Most relevant for daily life are Schacter’s first three sins of memory, which he catalogs as sins of omission. First is transience, the loss of memory over time. One way to fight transient memory loss is to spend time recalling an experience or information after you’ve begun encoding it. If you want to remember every detail of your daughter’s wedding, devote time to “rehearsing” the experience after the fact. Describe it to someone because every detail you recall and describe will be more deeply written into your memory and take longer to fade.
Schacter’s second sin is absent-mindedness — the “Where did I set my keys?” The real sin here is lack of attention. Chances are you don’t remember where you put them because you never made the memory in the first place. You set them down without thinking — no wonder you can’t find them. The solution is to pay attention. A workaround is to create a habit for where you set certain things. If you routinely set your keys in one specific spot, for example, it’s easier to find them when you need them.
The third sin is what Schacter calls blocking and we all do it. You bump into someone at the grocery store and can’t remember the person’s name. You can picture her at the parent-teacher organization meeting where you met her; you can picture her kids and even her husband. You know she’s from Nebraska. But you cannot remember her name. There’s no easy solution to this one. The important thing is that it’s a universal memory glitch. When it happens, remind yourself that it’s totally normal.
Imagine for a moment that forgetting never happens to you, that you are able to recall every bit of knowledge and experience gained over your lifetime. Before you celebrate, consider a man named Solomon Shereshevskii who was born in 1886. He had a seemingly unlimited capacity to store and retrieve memories. Given complex mathematical formulas or long lists, he recited them flawlessly hours, days or weeks later — in one instance, even 15 years later.
In his book, “Brain Rules,” molecular biologist John Medina describes Shereshevskii as “living in a permanent snowstorm [of] blinding flakes of unrelated sensory information.” Adrift in this blizzard, he was unable to see patterns or make meaning of anything, and it severely impaired his ability to function well in daily life.
TWO KEYS TO MEMORY
There are two aspects of how we remember that help explain the vagaries of memory. First is storage strength: how deeply you encode information (declarative memory) or experience (episodic memory). Second is retrieval strength: how quickly you are able to recall the information or experience.
To get a sense of how these two strengths interplay, bring to mind your childhood address. Chances are good that bit of information has high storage strength, meaning you know it really well. If you haven’t thought of it in years, however, it may have relatively low retrieval strength and it may take you a moment to recall it. Now imagine you’re staying in a hotel. What’s your room number? Chances are this bit of information has low storage strength in that you haven’t deeply encoded it — why would you? But it has high retrieval (recall) strength because it’s brand-new and relevant, at least until you check out. The following week, that room number is likely to have both low storage and retrieval strength.
IT’S ALL ABOUT TOMORROW — AND TONIGHT
Schacter believes memory flaws are adaptive, especially when we draw on the past to predict and plan for the future. “We need to be able to recombine bits and pieces of our past experience to simulate novel upcoming events,” he says. If your memory were one long tape recording of your life, it would be a lot tougher for your brain to pick out what’s relevant for planning, or indeed, even for living life right now, today.
Every night, your brain makes sense of the vast tangle of information and experience you’ve loaded into it all day. It does the day’s filing by culling the unimportant material and consolidating the rest into a framework that enables you to recall it the next day. How does it know what to pitch or keep? It notices where you focus your attention. If, say, you pay more attention to the joke you saw online (perhaps you even retell it a few times) and pay less attention to a bit of technical instruction, your brain is going to make the joke easier to recall than the instruction. Attention is everything.
Your brain never takes a break. Research shows that insufficient or interrupted sleep makes it harder to recall something from the previous day. So what do we do with all this information? Pay attention to the important stuff and cut yourself some slack when you forget, knowing that your memory is just doing what memory does. But, if you want your memory to work a little better, get a good night’s sleep. It will improve, guaranteed.