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Why Do We Forget Things?

The brain can store a vast number of memories, so why can't we find these memories when we need to? A new study provides insights into this question.
forgetful guy



kutay tanir

Our brains are crammed with a massive amount of memories that we have formed over a lifetime of experiences. These memories range from the profound (who am I and how did I get here?) to the most trivial (the license plate of the car at a stoplight). Furthermore, our memories also vary considerably in their precision. Parents, for instance, often know the perils of a fuzzy memory when shopping for a birthday gift for their child: remembering that their son wanted the G.I. Joe with Kung Fu Grip rather than the regular G.I. Joe could make an enormous difference in how well the gift is received. Thus, the “fuzziness” of our memory can often be just as important in our daily lives as being able to remember lots and lots of information in the first place.

Different Levels of Detail for Different Types of Memory?

In the past several decades, cognitive psychologists have determined that there are two primary memory systems in the human mind: a short-term, or “working,” memory that temporarily holds information about just a few things that we are currently thinking about; and a long-lasting memory that can hold massive amounts of information gained through a lifetime of thoughts and experiences. These two memory systems are also thought to differ in the level of detail they provide: working memory provides sharp detail about the few things we are presently thinking about, whereas long-term memory provides a much fuzzier picture about lots of different things we have seen or experienced. That is, although we can hold lots of things in long-term memory, the details of the memory aren’t always crystal-clear and are often limited to just the gist of what we saw or what happened.

A recently published study by Timothy F. Brady, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues suggests that these long-term memories may not be nearly as fuzzy as once thought, however. In their work, the researchers asked subjects to try to remember 3,000 pictures of common objects—including items such as backpacks, remote controls and toasters—that were presented one at a time for just a few seconds each. At the end of this viewing phase, the researchers tested subjects’ memory for each object by showing them two objects and asking which one they had seen before. Not surprisingly, subjects were exceptionally good (more than 90 percent correct) even though there were thousands of objects to remember. This high success rate attests to the massive storage ability of long-term memory. What was most surprising, however, was the amazing level of detail that the subjects had for all of these memories. The subjects were just as good at telling the difference between two pictures of the same object even when the objects differed in an extremely subtle manner, such as a pair of toasters with slightly different slices of bread.

If It’s Not Fuzzy, Why Do We Still Forget Things?
This new work provides compelling evidence that the enormous amount of information we hold in long-term memory is not so uncertain after all. It seems that we actually hold representations of things we’ve seen in a fairly detailed and precise form.

Of course, this finding raises the obvious question: if our memories aren’t all that fuzzy, then why do we often forget the details of things we want to remember? One explanation is that, although the brain contains detailed representations of lots of different events and objects, we can’t always find that information when we want it. As this study reveals, if we’re shown an object, we can often be very accurate and precise at being able to say whether we’ve seen it before. If we’re in a toy store and trying to remember what it was that our son wanted for his birthday, however, we need to be able to voluntarily search our memory for the right answer—without being prompted by a visual reminder. It seems that it is this voluntary searching mechanism that’s prone to interference and forgetfulness. At least that’s our story when we come home without the Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joe.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

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