What Causes Memory Loss and Forgetfulness?

By | September 14, 2016

What Causes Memory Loss and Forgetfulness?

“The existence of forgetting has never been proved:  We only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them,” Friedrich Nietzsche once said.

Being forgetful causes a lot of anxiety in people today, especially with the increasing awareness of memory-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, new studies show that the human mind, not traumatized by serious injury or disease, never forgets. Experts say forgetting is not akin to losing information, but more so because there might be slip-up in the way the information was stored or in the way it is being retrieved.

But then, if the problem really lies on information-gathering and retrieval, why do most of us still tend to forget, no matter how hard we rack our brains? We forget where we put those keys, that much-needed item in the grocery list, or worse, those very important answers in an exam that might spell the difference between a passing mark and a failing grade.

A variety of factors contribute to the way our brain stores and supplies information. Although schools of thought and psychology are still debating on how the human mind works, they agree for one thing that memory is affected by our overall experience – from our genes, to the kind of childhood we had, down to the food we ate for breakfast this morning.

Some scientists liken the mind to a video camera because of its ability and nature to record everything a person experiences. Thus, looking for a particular event in your past is similar to searching for a scene in a video footage: a person can select the target scene, view it in slow motion or fast forward, even pause or zoom in to a particular detail. It is from this view that techniques to retrieve memory using hypnosis, truth serum, meditation, therapy and other similar forms come from.

On the other hand, despite the mind’s “videographic” eye, it was discovered that the mind does not have perfect archival properties, similar to a videotape that can gather mildew, lose sharpness, and age over time. The brain is also likened to a computer chip. While it may hold very large amount of information, its capacity to store data nevertheless has its limitations. To make way for “new data,” the mind reconstructs the stored information from time to time. Thus, events may not be perfectly remembered. Over time, some elements may be lost, details may get blurry or gradually be gone. “Trigger” elements such as a song, a photograph, or a kind of smell may bring back a long-forgotten memory. Still some fragments of our past can be gone forever.

Forgetting is what we refer as the temporary or long-term loss of details, stimuli record, or memory materials that has been learned or stored in our brains. A forgotten item may be stored in memory but unavailable for retrieval or recall. There are several theories or explanation regarding forgetting.

  1. Decay of Memory Traces – This is the oldest explanation regarding forgetting. Memory is said to have a natural tendency to decay with time. When a word or a name of person is no longer relevant, such memory item may eventually lose its significant place inside our brain.
  2. Distortion of Memory – Some experiences may be learned or retrieved in a much distorted form. Such inaccuracy may lead to a different or false memory or may even defeat the process of retrieval since what are being accessed are wrong traces or leads in our brain.
  3. Interference – This experience may have been a result of in-between situations or uncontrollable variables during the experience of learning or memorizing. This also includes what occurs before, during, or after learning. 

    Activities done before a task may confuse the retention process or what psychologists call as proactive inhibition. The more previously learned task there are, the greater the forgetting of the new tasks or operation. However, the more meaningful the material to be learned and retained, the less effect of such proactive kind of inhibition.On the other hand, an opposite effect happens during the retroactive inhibition, in which there are interfering activities occurring after a learning period. Usually, people who have to learn a second task forget more of the first than those who are given only one task to do. That is why, it would be advisable to master a particular task or skill before going on to the next activity, because retaining too much information require complex interactions of your memory and psychomotor skill.

    Such example is proven during the period of learning how to drive. Motor skills and various movements are necessary and may sometimes look confusing at first since they require synchronicity.

    However as we slowly start to learn to put individual bodily tasks into a cohesive and unified action, we begin to think in a very precise and completely organized manner. This means we have already learned or memorized different tasks and have already put them into order.

    Therefore, in order to remember more, one must have mastery of a particular task or skill before engaging in other activities which require particular specialization.

  4. Motivated Forgetting – This is a variable in forgetting which involve the individual’s motive or desire to remember or forget. People seem to repress certain memories or suppress the process of retention or memory retrieval.More often remembered are pleasant events than unpleasant ones. Emotion also plays an important aspect in this explanation regarding forgetting. Some people prefer to forget experiences that are sad or traumatic.This may be a wise move. If you spend less time recollecting your failures and disappointments in life, you’ll have better capacity to retain the positive and essential information in your mind.Because negative thoughts aggravate stress, you should learn to relax and forget about past mistakes. The past is done. Focus and retain only positive thoughts.
  5. Lack of Cues or Guides – We are able to retrieve material to the extent that we have cues to remind us of it. When we remember something, it is as if we search our memory with the help of cues or guides that point the way to the desired materials.When we forget, it is because we may lack the necessary cues or guides in getting back the information stored in the vast neural connection of our brain.

So don’t flip out the next time you spend an hour looking for your glasses, only to realize that you’re actually wearing your glasses.

If you have any comments or thoughts to share, please feel free to leave a reply below.

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