Ever Wondered Why You Forget? : The Psychology Behind Forgetting

Ever Wondered Why You Forget? : The Psychology Behind Forgetting


Have you ever thought that you often forget the information that you need the most but are never able to forget the lyrics of your favourite song you learnt a decade ago or an embarrassing moment that you had 5 years ago?? Why? What is the reason behind this? 

To know this, continue reading and gain more insight into the science behind forgetting. In psychological terms, we can describe forgetting as the inability to recall a chunk of information or even an entire phase, that was part of actively acquired knowledge or experience. 

Now is it a good thing or a bad thing to forget? 

See, forgetting does play an important role and a part of how our brain works, how it retains information, till the time it’s needed and how it dumps it when it’s no longer needed. It’s sort of a lapse in memory, a dynamic process where selective attention takes place and the retained data is easily recalled as far it concerns whether it’s good or bad. Forgetting is a little helpful, it eases our life by filtering out irrelevant details while prioritising essential information and making room for continuous new learning.

Read More: Unlock Your Brain’s Power: Enhance Memory and Cognitive Performance

It is tough to believe that the human brain is complex and dynamic to such an extent that there is constant reset at the back of your head without any conscious effort. This article will help you understand the mechanism behind the process of forgetting, and how our memory system works and adapts to the influx of continuous new experiences. 

Theories of Forgetting

There have been several theories proposed by psychologists who were as inquisitive as you to know what goes inside our brain while all this forgetting takes place. Let’s dive into those theories one by one. 


Trace Decay theory 

This theory proposes that the reason forgetting takes place in all of us is that our memories fade or erode with time, if we don’t access it or reinforce it. Let’s break it down in an easier way.

With the help of this theory, psychologists tried to explain that all our memories have a trace, a sort of cue or hint in the brain. If these traces or hints are left unused or reinforced continually by recalling them, they’d end up fading away and would eventually become less accessible over time. For instance: you were taught a new language but you didn’t use it or practice it as much. So eventually, your memory traces or hints of the vocabulary and grammar rules of that language decayed and vanished over time. Now, you are not able to reproduce any of those learnt words and concepts of that language.

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This theory emphasizes why we should be actively revisiting or revising our important lessons to avoid their decay. Another factor that this theory talked about is interference, while our brain is welcoming new information the old information scoots aside and slowly and steadily is forgotten like in the movie ‘Inside Out’, where Riley forgets about ‘Bing Bong’.

Retrieval failure theory 

Retrieval failure theory focuses on the inability to recall information or any experience because of the absence of appropriate cues or contextual data. It says that even though we do have the information somewhere in our heads, we can’t recall it because we don’t have effective cues, hints, or contexts that will trigger the recall.

For instance: while you head out of the house, you do know where you keep the keys but you substantially feel unable to have the right cue as to where you see it last or keep it last. Another example is when you do have a song in the head to hum and you’ve been humming the tune but don’t have a cue to remember the lyrics and as soon as you get it, you can recall it entirely. 

This theory aims to say that retrieval cues are very important and help us recall the information, we do need specific details, contexts, emotions or even relevant chunks of the data that will assist the retrieval from storage. It also emphasizes the way we initially encoded and stored the information and its effect on our readiness to recall it. We used to make mnemonics to learn big concepts to make cues for ourselves and to ease our recalling ability. 

Motivated forgetting 

This theory applies to those episodes where you consciously wish to forget a particular chunk of your memory because of any traumatic, bad, or embarrassing moment or experience. It happens to all of us when we are trying to escape the turmoil of emotions and the loop of regretting an action that put us into that situation and now we are just suppressing or blocking out those memories. It works as our defence mechanism and is necessary to protect one’s psychological well-being. 

Examples can be consciously forgetting or trying to forget about a bad performance in an exam or competition to ease the embarrassment or emotional burden. There are a lot of factors behind this motivated forgetting like emotional intensity, personal relevance and the perceived threat associated with our memory of it. 

Strong and highly intensified emotions like fear or disgust can lead to a greater motivation to forget. Motivated forgetting is like a helping tool, it helps us cope with distressing memories, but it can lead to memory distortions or inaccuracies. It says that the memories that we are intentionally forgetting may get altered over time. 

Read More: 6 Science-Backed Memory, Tips and Techniques 

Consolidation theory

This theory proceeds to explain forgetting in a little scientific way and first explains the chronology of memory formation. According to this memory formation involves 2 main stages: short-term memory and long-term memory. Information goes from short-term memory to long-term memory via a series of processes that stabilize and strengthen the memory trace. It will result in the permanent storage and retrieval of the information/ memories.

It is applicable in an academic context when you are preparing for an exam. So when you, begin learning a new topic, it’s initially stored in your short-term memory and when we keep repeating and revising, we can move it to long-term memory and that is why we are often told by our teachers to revisit and keep reviewing the previously done lessons and chapters to solidify our conceptual clarity and retention.

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The hippocampus, a region in the brain, responsible for memory formation, has a significant role in this consolidation process. It is the one involved in moving memories from short-term to long-term storage. Our sleep cycle is also one of the important factors in memory consolidation, as when in sleep, our brain processes and consolidates memories, making them more secure stable and easily accessible. 

We came to know about various aspects of forgetting and it makes us reflect upon our lives with a different perspective it tells us that whatever we go through in our lives is all okay as we are designed that way and if anything goes wrong, be grateful that you are equipped with the power to forget. By knowing how to prevent forgetting, you can be clever enough to strategies your ways of learning so that you prevent the erosion of all the information that you don’t want to forget. 

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Last but not least, your brain being the most complex part is the most equipped and driven organ and it makes you powerful in all aspects, be grateful for it and trust its dynamics when anything goes wrong.

Reference +
  • (PDF) a global theory of remembering and forgetting from multiple lists. (n.d.-e). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26655654_A_Global_Theory_of_Remembering_and_Forgetting_From_Multiple_Lists
  • Studio, A. (2023, June 5). Theories of forgetting: Psychology for UPSC optional (Notes) PDF Download. EDUREV.IN. https://edurev.in/t/269394/Theories-of-Forgetting?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjwu8uyBhC6ARIsAKwBGpTsr1PJpwTWosbHd_0fLVbzpr0MlfeKaOIImno9Y6wD7lcqSZlqWIgaAoi5EALw_wcB
  • Unit 5 memory and forgetting. (n.d.-n). https://egyankosh.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/31501/1/Unit-5.pdf
  • Kendra Cherry, Mse. (2023a, February 27). The Psychology of Forgetting and why memory fails. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/forgetting-about-psychology-2795034

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