When people get older, they sometimes jokingly explain that we forget things because our brains become full of other things. Well, that’s my reasoning. Gizmodo asked various psychologists and neuroscientists, and got answers from a variety of angles. You can look at how memories are made and stored and how that can fail, what’s going on in the brain physically, and what outside influences make us forget.
Cognitively, there has been a longstanding debate as to whether forgetting is due to (a) the decay of information in the memory stores or (b) interference from competing information at retrieval. In terms of the interference hypothesis, memory researchers make a distinction between availability (i.e., is the information still in the memory system?) and accessibility (i.e., can the existing information be presently reached at this moment of retrieval?). To illustrate, consider the tip-of-the tongue phenomenon where you know the word is in your mind somewhere, but you just can’t get in the right frame of mind to grab that word. Or consider the case where you visit your old high school, see your old locker, and suddenly a series of old memories spring back into mind. From the interference perspective, these old memories were still preserved in some manner and form (albeit ‘buried’ by interference), and they have become accessible once again and able to be utilized for retrieval processes.
There’s a lot more about the science of forgetting in a roundup at Gizmodo.
(Image credit: © Nevit Dilmen)