By Arun Krishnadas

Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

All of us, young or old, are faced with a common problem, if it can be called one, which is the act called forgetting. Being something that affects us in any phase of life, it is annoying at times and bliss at others. The question however, is how could a magician like God not be able to debug such a ‘problem’ in ‘our computers,’ and why is it that there’s no remedy for this? Let’s explore the theory behind forgetting –

The inability to recollect a piece of information that we believe to have stored in our brains, is the common definition we attribute to forgetfulness. It could vary from the point of complete ignorance of ever having come across the topic, to the point of having it clearly in our minds, but lacking the clarity to express it. There are three stages in the mnemonic functioning of our brains, namely encoding, storage and retrieval, just like that of a personal computer. However, a variation from the latter exists in that we are sophisticated beings capable of emotions, and consequently our evolutionary ‘advantage’ has enabled us to analyse, decipher and interpret data in all together new ways. Hence, the encoding step takes place in a manner, whereby without proper reaffirmation, the data tends to get stored in a temporary folder, from where it is nearly impossible to retrieve it, i.e. the information is lost.

Before we delve into the theories of this temporary folder and how to prevent the loss of information from it, we need to question as to whether the data is truly lost, and if so, why does this even happen. As per the theory of evolution, anything, which helps us adapt more effectively to our surroundings, will eventually modify us for the better. For example, on comparing the human brain to that of an ape, we could see changes in structure that have been scientifically proven to be indicators of intelligence, but nothing so in particular pertaining to the brain’s memory centres. Hence, we come to the understanding that forgetting is actually not a disadvantage, for if it were; evolution would have ensured its adaptation. For one, accumulated data is in a kind of recycle bin, called long term memory, from which recollection is possible, but difficult. We have heard stories of how a person is able to recollect, when hypnotised, things which he was unable to while conscious. Therefore, the intricacies of the matter at hand are complicated, which makes our brains super-computers indeed. Further, the reason that the ultimate cure is time is because of this art. Our ability to be able to forget is the simple reason why several emotionally traumatic events, which could be life threatening, are not classified so.

Could all these processes of our brain be mathematically represented as a power equation? Let’s find out!

 The theories pertaining to forgetting are centered on certain themes. The most popular is the trace decay theory, which claims that any action involving memory actually gets traced in the brain. The trace becomes darker with repetition, and contrarily with the passage of time, this trace starts fading, like pencil traces on paper, and eventually dies away. While it explains the basis of neurological memory traces and the possibility of structural changes, the fact that this explanation is unable to get verified and also states nothing with respect to new memories trying to take up spaces, or the influence of external stimuli, makes this theory just a theory. Besides, the two other theories, namely the cue-dependent forgetting and interference theory, are far more plausible.

If trace theory stated that time is the criterion, cue-dependent theory states that lack of stimuli present during encoding is what hinders the process of retrieval, just like how the absence of hints makes solving certain problems very difficult. The last theory states that it is the interference or conflict for space between old memories and new ones that hinders the process of learning, often resulting in old ones being replaced with new ones.

It is yet to be verified which among these three theories is more accurate. It has been shown however, that with good effort in the form of better health habits, exercise, meditation and such, the storage and retrieval stages could be enhanced dramatically. Hence, we need to realise that there is a reason why we tend to forget things. Certain things are meant to be forgotten. Do not cling on to them and waste your time, but also remember that certain others need to be engraved into your mind, and that you have the ability to do that too! The flexibility in our memory curves is indeed an unique aspect of our brains worth considering and utilising, at least till the time that you forget what you are doing!

Arun  is a reserved individual, who places his interests at par with those of others around him. He is determined when he sets onto something, but still spends long amounts of time introspecting on his decisions, whatever be the results. He likes to spend time with friends, reading books, watching sports and films, writing his heart out and setting time tables for a better tomorrow. He believes that for some things, there’s today, and for others there’s tomorrow, be it the one that comes or the one that doesn’t.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind