What is the forgetting curve?

Forget. Today, most people spend their lives making an effort to acquire new knowledge and skills, recording and encoding different information to keep in memory, both consciously and unconsciously.

However, often we have to review and practice to keep it, otherwise it will go away. While in some cases, such as traumatic events and depression, we may wish that such knowledge or memories were gone (which in turn may cause us to hold onto them even more in memory), in most cases, a forgetfulness occurs.

Traditionally, there has been a lot of research in psychology on memory and its processes, including forgetting. One of the studies at the origin of the study of forgetting is that carried out Hermann Ebbinghaus, Which developed what is called the forgetting curve.

What is forgetting?

The concept of forgetting refers to the loss of accessibility to information previously discussed in the report, and this forgetting can occur due to very different circumstances. Usually, this phenomenon is due to attention gaps, or just over time, although forgetting can occur as a form of blocking a stressful situation or due to the presence of some type of disorder, whether organic or psychological.

While at the conscious level it seems a bit boring and unwanted, the ability to forget performs an adaptive function. Through forgetting, we are able to remove information and concepts from our brains that we do not need or need, so we ignore details and circumstantial elements in order to enable us to focus on the heart of the matter. When we remember a specific moment in our life, we usually do not remember in detail (except in very exceptional cases with photographic memory and / or situations of great emotion) all the stimuli that were present in that situation, but the main idea, because it allowed us to forget the most contextual elements.

One of the first studies carried out on this phenomenon was that which led to the development of the forgetting curve, which was later explained by various theories. We explain how this forgetting curve was obtained and some of the explanatory theories that flow from it..

Hermann Ebbinghaus and the curve of oblivion

The name of Hermann Ebbinghaus he is well known in the world of psychology because of his great importance in the study of memory. This famous German psychologist has greatly contributed to clarifying and studying the different processes involved in withholding information, as well as losing or forgetting it.

His studies led him to carry out a series of experiments, with himself as an experimental subject, in which he worked from repetition to memorizing series of repeated syllables until perfect memorization, then to evaluation. the level of retention of this material over time. without making any examination.

Through the results of the experiments conducted, Ebbinghaus sketched out the well-known forgetting curve, a graph that shows how, when memorizing a certain material, the level of retention of learned information decreases logarithmically over time. This forgetting curve was made using the savings method where the time needed to relearn the list is subtracted from the time needed to learn it for the first time. Thanks to this curve, a comparison can be made between the material which is initially processed and what is kept in memory.a. From the author’s point of view, this loss is due to the passage of time and the non-use of information.

The results of the experiments and their analysis in the forgetting curve indicate that after the moment of acquiring the information the level of memorized matter dropped drastically in the first moments, being able to disappear from consciousness more than half material learned throughout the first day. After that, the material continues to fade, but the amount of information forgotten in a given time decreases to a point, approximately from the week of learning, where there is no more loss. However, the material that is retained after this time is practically zero, so the time required to relearn it can be very similar to the initial time.

Some notable aspects that can be observed from the forgetting curve are that at any point in time it takes less time to relearn a material than it does to learn from scratch, even in fragments that have vanished from memory. . In this way, this, along with other research carried out by various authors, helps to show that in the process of forgetting, information does not disappear from it passes to an unconscious level which allows its recovery through effort and review.

Explanations derived from Ebbinghaus theory

The forgetting curve is a graph which takes into account the progressive loss of the material previously memorized, as long as the revision of this material is not carried out.

From the observations that led to its realization have emerged different theories that attempt to explain this loss, two of which are as follows.

1. Theory of fingerprint loss

The Lost Track Theory is a theory developed by the same Ebbinghaus who tries to explain the forgetting curve. For the author, the loss of information is mainly due to the little use given to this information, so that the memory imprint left in our body weakens and fades over time. At the biological level, it is considered that neuronal structures eventually lose the changes that learning produces in them, so that they would return to a state similar to that before learning.

Research shows that memory decline occurs mostly in short-term memory, but if the information manages to pass into long-term memory, it becomes permanent. In the event that something stored in long-term memory cannot be accessed, the problem mainly arises in finding information.

However, this theory is criticized for not taking into account several factors, such as the fact that new material appears which makes it difficult to access information. In addition, there are many different variables that influence the ability to remember, such as the amount of material to be retained or the emotional significance of the information processed. Thus, the greater the quantity of material, the greater the difficulty in maintaining it over time, and in the event that knowledge arouses strong sensations and emotions in the learner, it is easier for the memory to remain.

2. Theories of interference

Several authors have considered that the theory of fingerprint degradation is not sufficient to explain the process of forgetting. Since human beings are constantly learning new things, one element these authors considered to be overlooked is the problems caused by the overlap of new or old knowledge with learned material.

Thus were born the theories of interference, which they argue that the information to be learned is lost because other information interferes with accessing it.

This interference can occur retroactively or proactively. In the case of proactive interference, prior learning makes it difficult to acquire a new one. Admittedly, this does not correctly explain the forgetting, but a problem of encoding information. Retroactive interference is what produces the presence of new knowledge that overlaps with the material to be remembered. Thus, learning something new prevents us from remembering the previous one. This phenomenon would largely explain the loss of information that occurs in the forgetting curve.

How to avoid forgetting

The study of memory and forgetting has allowed the creation of different strategies and techniques so that learning is preserved in memory. In order to avoid the effects observed in the forgetting curve, it is fundamental to revise the material learned.

As already demonstrated by the experiments carried out, the repeated review of information makes learning more and more consolidated, gradually lowering the level of information loss over time.

The use of mnemonic strategies is also very useful, By improving the capacity of mental representation. The aim is to make more efficient use of the resources available to the nervous system itself to bring together units of information more efficiently. So although the brain loses neurons and other important cells over time, others can communicate more effectively, retaining important information.

But even in cases where there is no significant brain damage, mnemonic techniques help us lessen the effects of the forgetfulness curve. The reason is that they help us to create more solid sense units, which we can achieve by recalling a variety of more varied experiences. For example, if we associate a word with a cartoon character that has a similar name, the string of phonemes that form that proper name will support us so that what we want to remember comes to mind.

In short, the forgetting curve is a universal phenomenon, but we have some leeway to establish what can make us forget and what cannot.

    Conclusion: the limits of memory

    Research on the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve provided the first scientific evidence on the limits of memorization, before experiments could be conducted in this area in the field of neuroscience. Knowing these limits allows us to use more effective learning techniques.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Averell, L .; Heathcote, A. (2011). The shape of the oblivion curve and the fate of memories. Journal of Mathematical Psychology. 55: 25-35.
    • Baddely, A. (2007). Working memory, thought and action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Baddeley, A. (1999). Human memory. Theory and practise. Ed. Mc. Graw Hill. Madrid.
    • Baddeley, A .; Eysenck, MW and Anderson, MC (2010). Memory. Alliance.
    • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Thesis: a contribution to experimental psychology. Teachers College, Columbia University. New York.
    • Eysenck MW, Eysenck MC (1980). Effects of processing depth, distinction, and word frequency on retention. British Journal of Psychology. 71 (2): 263-274.
    • Schacter, DL (2002). The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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