How Quickly We Forget
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This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.
What if I told you there was an easy way to increase your memory at the push of a button? I’m convinced there is, and I want to tell you a little bit about it. But first, let’s look at how we forget and why our memory tends to fail us in the first place.
How quickly we forget
How quickly do we forget? Too quickly, you might say — and you'd be right.
The research on how quickly memory fades (or “decays”, as it is cheerfully termed in the research literature) dates back more than 120 years to the work of German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus. He planned a methodical technique of memorizing meaningless strings of letters (e.g., DAL; TYP; KEP; MUV), and then saw how long he was able to hold those strings in his memory.
His painstaking work produced a striking graph describing how memory fades over time. "The forgetting curve", as the graph has come to be known, shows a dizzyingly steep drop over the first day or so, followed by a gradual flattening of the curve over the next month.
So, we might forget something like half the information we encounter throughout one day, but we could recall 10 or 20 per cent of the original information for a month. In this way, our experience of memory can be deceptive. We think we "remember" information if we can immediately reproduce it, when just a few hours later it could be swallowed by the business end of the forgetting curve.
"The key to remembering information over the long term is to revisit it and practice recollecting it often."
– Dr. Cameron Clark
The key to remembering
But the forgetting curve certainly doesn't describe our relationship with all information. Though we are prone to forgetting what we only consider once or twice such as nonsense strings of letters or the name of someone we just met, we can generally remember most things we turn our attention to often.
Your phone number is a perfect example of this. What's the difference between your phone number and one you've never seen before? They're both just a jumble of 10 numbers picked at random. But one feels much more familiar to you and is certainly much easier to remember. Why? It's the number of times you have revisited and recalled that piece of information over the years.
We tell our memories what is important to keep by how many times we practice recalling it. This also explains nicely why we forget the phone numbers of those close to us when we rely on speed dial or saved contact information on our phones.
So, the key to remembering information over the long term is to revisit it and practice recollecting it often. Ebbinghaus knew this and described how the steep section of the forgetting curve could be flattened by subsequent review of information.
Think of this information recall as “drops of glue”. Recalling or reconsidering something only once is like adding only one drop of glue to that piece information. It appears securely fastened, but the glue may lose its hold over time. However, each review or recall of material adds an additional drop of glue, further increasing the bond. Add enough glue, and you may never forget your phone number.
Aiding memory with “spaced retrieval”
So how can we use this knowledge of the forgetting curve and its antidotes to help improve our own memory day to day? We can use a technique called “spaced retrieval”, or simply recalling important information we want to remember at longer and longer intervals.
A good example would be rehearsing the name of a person you just met after, say, two seconds, then 10 seconds, then 30 seconds, and so forth — adding a metaphorical drop of glue each time until you have it firmly in memory.
As you might imagine, this spaced retrieval process works quite well, but unfortunately, is hard to implement when you need it most. When I teach healthy older adults about memory and how it changes with age, I always end up introducing spaced retrieval as "the most useful memory strategy that you'll never use", due mainly to its impracticality in day-to-day life. If you have the fortitude of memory to remind yourself to recall information at increasingly long intervals, you likely also have the fortitude of memory to recall the information you wanted to in the first place. You may think, why bother?
Introducing Memory On Hand
To help make remembering easier, we have created Memory On Hand, a new wearable technology concept. It is designed to help people apply the spaced retrieval memory strategy at the push of a button.
While wearing the device, you provide insight that you want to remember something you think you may forget — such as a name, a number, an address or a website — and Memory On Hand provides the tactile cues to help you commit that information to memory as you go about your day. You can even use the device discretely in the middle of a conversation. As we like to say, Memory On Hand is the 21st century solution to the age-old problem of forgetting.
The goals for the Memory On Hand device are to:
- Improve objective memory performance.
- Improve confidence in memory.
- Reduce anxiety about cognitive decline and dementia more generally.
The device may also work well for people with various types of brain damage, such as acquired brain injury, Multiple Sclerosis or stroke, or even for students at various stages of learning. We’re keen to test each of these possibilities more thoroughly in the coming years.
Join the trial
For now, we are searching for more people in Canada to test our second-version prototype by participating in a one-week trial.
How it works
- The Memory On Hand device will be mailed to you.
- You will wear the device for a week, or so, using it whenever the need strikes for improved memory.
- You provide anonymous feedback about your experiences with the device to help us better understand how the concept is working, and where it may need improvement.
The feedback we've received so far has been quite positive, but your participation will help us to get a better idea of who the device is working for — and who it might not be working for. Please join us in helping you to remember more — with just a push of a button.
If you are interested in seeing whether your memory can be improved using Memory On Hand, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GET MORE INFORMATION
Learn more on the Memory On Hand website or join the trial by emailing email@example.com.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Cameron Clark, PhD, RPsych, is a clinical neuropsychologist living in Calgary, Alberta.
He received his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Calgary in 2017. He then completed a research-based post-doctoral fellowship at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute/Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
In 2020, Dr. Clark founded sharpthinking.org, an organization that seeks to provide empirically supported education and reassurance to older adults concerned about age-related cognitive and memory changes.
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