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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

What About Forgetfulness?

Everyone forgets! But seeing forgetfulness as a problem is a matter of perspective. When we are in our twenties we laugh and joke about the things we forget. Others our age join in a laughable moment. But when we hit our fifties it all changes. We are terrified at our forgetfulness because we assume that we must be at the start of Alzheimer’s. Others look at us with concern as they begin to question the same thing. What a huge change in perspective over thirty years! Let’s see what the assumptions are in our later years and which of those are really valid.

Forgetfulness is the loss of information already stored in long-term memory. There is a perspective that is gaining popularity and has been validated in research: forgetting helps to mitigate the storage of new information with old knowledge.

The following are some theories presented about forgetting:

· Cue-dependent forgetting: This simply means that we can’t remember something because the context or stimuli that were embedded with the memory are not available. This theory states that the reason the memory is temporarily forgotten is because the proper cue is not available to bring it to mind.

· Trace decay theory: We have two types of memory storage systems. Short-term memory has duration of 15-30 seconds storage. If the information is not rehearsed, the information will fade away and decay. When information is introduced, a series of neurons will create a neurological memory trace which results in a change of structure and/or chemicals in the brain that would fade with time. Repetition causes repeated firings in the brain and holds the memory until structural changes occur in the synapses. So this theory states that the amount of time the information has been retained is important. The longer time passes more of the memory traces are subject to decay and the information ultimately is forgotten. Challenges to this theory state that many things happen to a person between the time the memory is encoded and then recalled. The function of time as the only reason for forgetting is not viable and there is no way to test this theory for proof of this hypothesis.

· Organic causes: This theory presents that forgetting occurs through physiological damage or destruction of the brain. This theory states that information held in long-term memory is destroyed and there is no ability to encode new memories. This happens in Alzheimer’s disease.

· Interference theories: This theory refers to an idea that learning something new causes old information to be forgotten. When you are encoding new memories, they can be confused with old memories and there is a distortion or disruption of memories. Proof that this theory is valid has only occurred through remembering lists of words. There has been no proof that this happens in every-day life.

· Decay theory: This is the use it or lose it theory. When something new is learned it has to be recalled over time or the memory will decay. Time is the greatest impact in remembering an event.

There are numerous causes for forgetfulness. The first line of reasoning is that the encoding process was weak. Short-term memory is very vulnerable to distraction. If we don’t immediately strengthen the input with repetition the memory will have trouble encoding and we won’t have access to that memory. The following causes can be detrimental to short-term memory but they also affect long-term memory too.

· Lack of sleep: Too little restful sleep can lead to mood changes and anxiety – which then affect memory.

· Medications: Tranquilizers, antidepressants, some blood pressure medications among others can cause memory problems. These medications can cause confusion, dizziness and sedation side effects that affect memory.

· Underactive thyroid: The struggling thyroid can affect memory, disturb sleep, and cause depression, all of which affects memory.

· Alcohol: Too much alcohol interferes with short-term memory, even after the effects of the alcohol have worn off.

· Stress and anxiety: Anything that disrupts attention and focus can interrupt the formation of new memories and the recall of old memories.

· Depression: Forgetfulness can be a sign of depression or a cause of it.

Aging can also be a cause of memory problems. The theories presented almost all had a reference to time. Physical activity and mental stimulation are a couple of practices that can assist the brain in staying healthy and working effectively. If you feel that forgetfulness is causing problems in your life you need to pay a visit to your doctor. Finding out if you are just having normal aging issues or if you might have something more serious, is definitely worth your time. Sitting around worrying about your memory or forgetfulness does nothing to correct the problem. Knowledge is still power when it comes to your brain.


Forgetting. Retrieved April 23, 2015 from

Pendick, D. (Feb. 22, 2013). 7 common causes of forgetfulness. Retrieved April 23, 2015 from The Harvard Business Blog,

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