• Robb G. Best

Forgetting to Learn, or, The Paradox of Memory

Memory is a fickle thing. There are times when the important information you need, like an email password, remains just out of your grasp. But you’re equally likely to recall a jingle for a product that’s been obsolete for decades, a product you never even purchased or liked.

Forgetting: the older we get, the scarier it seems, what with the threat of Alzheimer’s and dementia hovering out there like the ghosts of senility future.

But what if the act of forgetting wasn’t just part of the normal degradation of memory but actually intrinsic to the act of remembering? What if in order to remember something, you had to forget a little of it?

It flies in the face of how we conceptualize memory, as stored information slowly disappearing like cookies from the cookie jar.

But University of California scientists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork have helped alter our perception of how memory and learning work.

In one experiment, people were given a series of poetry lines to learn. Once the lines were studied and memorized, subjects were immediately tested on their recall. They did pretty well.

This is the principle behind pulling an all-nighter to cram for a test. The downside, apart from a lost night of sleep, is that you will retain very little of the material in a few days. In other words, we might say you never really imprinted it into your long-term memory.

If your goal is actually increasing your knowledge, there is a much better way to go, says Benedict Carey in How We Learn. It has to do with capitalizing on forgetting. In the act of losing and then subsequently retrieving the information again (either through the act of remembering or reinforcement), you create a stronger set of neural connections.

The Bjorks’ “forget to learn” theory states that forgetting is a “desirable difficulty.” The harder your brain has to work to retrieve stored information, the more hierarchical importance it gives that information for later retrieval.

A good analogy is weight lifting. When you do biceps curls with heavy weights, you break down your arms’ muscle fibers. After about 48 hours, your body has rebuilt those fibers—and strengthened them in anticipation of more lifting.

Forgetting is like breaking down the muscle fibers. When you struggle to recall something, you create an imprint more powerful then the original one. Those moments of racking your brain and feeling like an idiot are simply a part of the cycle.

The 30-day memory rule

If you really want to take advantage of this process, how should you space your “reps”, so to speak?

From facts to poetry, the time between taking in the information and forcing yourself to recall and review it should ideally be about a month.

This puts you right on the memory’s edge of forgetting. Following this process with a 30 day window has shown to significantly increase your chances of holding on to that original information, moving it permanently into long-term memory, where that irritating TV jingle has pitched a tent.

The next time you need to retain something important, make a date with yourself to recall and review it again in 30 days.

Forgetting: it’s not necessarily a bad thing—and that’s probably worth remembering.


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