The Science of Forgetting

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I found an interesting article by Richard Sima, a neuroscientist turned science journalist, who regularly writes about brain matters at The Washington Post. While discussing the science of forgetting, he writes “because of information overload and the monotony of pandemic life, your brain may already be forgetting parts of the covid years”.

Sima thinks that many of us can’t remember many details of Covid or other events over time because of the limitations of how much our brains can remember.

William Hirst, professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York, told Sima “Our memory is designed not to be computer-like. It fades.”

Sima explains how our brain stores new information such as a pandemic, family events, family travels, etc as memories.

  • “When we encounter new information, our brains encode it with changes in neurons in the hippocampus, an important memory center, as well as other areas, such as the amygdala for emotional memories. These neurons embody a physical memory trace, known as an engram.
  • “Much of this information is lost unless it is stored during memory consolidation, which often happens during sleep, making the memories more stable and long-term. The hippocampus essentially “replays” the memory, which is also redistributed to neurons in the cortex for longer-term storage. One theory is that the hippocampus stores an index of where these cortical memory neurons are for retrieval — like Google search.
  • “Finally, during memory retrieval, the memory trace neurons in the hippocampus and cortex are reactivated.
  • Notably, memories are not fixed and permanent. The memory is subject to change each time we access and reconsolidate it.
  • “What we remember tends to be distinctive, emotionally loaded and deemed worthy of processing and reflecting upon in our heads after the event happened. Our memories are centered on our life stories and what affected us personally the most.

If there is too much information, our brains can’t handle it all. According to Suparna Rajaram, psychology professor who researches the social transmission of memory at Stony Brook University, “This is a very fundamental memory phenomenon. Even for such salient emotional events and salient life-threatening events, that the more you have of it, the more you will have trouble capturing all of them.”

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