Thomas De Quincey
I feel that there is no such thing as ultimate forgetting; traces once impressed upon the memory are indestructible.
When attempting to improve your capacity for recall, it is helpful to first understand why it is that people forget things in the first place.
Now there are a variety of theories that have been put forward over the years, all of which claim to explain exactly why it is that memory loss, or to be more precise ‘failure to access memories’ does occur. These explanations range from the physiological to the psychological. In this page I have attempted to outline as best I can, some of the most widely accepted of these theories.
Damage to the brain, whether from accidental injury or from disease, can result in two basic forms of memory loss (or amnesia). These are:
Retrograde amnesia is the loss of memories stored in an individual’s brain before the damage took place.
This condition is generally speaking, not a long lasting one. And in most of the reported cases results in only the loss of about ten minutes worth of memories. Normally those memories formed immediately preceding the trauma.
In some cases however, when severe damage to the brain has occurred, an individual may lose a large percentage of their memories - permanently. Such massive memory loss is however very rare indeed.
This form of amnesia results in the opposite symptoms to those of retrograde amnesia. A person suffering from anterograde amnesia losses their ability to form new memories. Although their ability to recall information that was stored prior to the trauma, usually remains unaffected.
This form of amnesia seems to result from damage to the hypocampus, part of the limbic system of the brain - See how your memory operates.
One of the earliest of the theories regarding memory loss, was put forward by the psychologist Sigmund Freud in 1901.
Basically what he theorized, was that forgetting results from the repression of certain memories, due to the fact that they were so traumatic to the individual, that he/she dared not face them.
A good example of memory repression, would be that of someone who as a child had suffered some form of sexual abuse. This experience could have been so traumatic to the child, that they completely repressed all memory of the event. As a result, when the child reached adulthood, they may have lost all memory of the incident. This form of memory repression is known as ‘Motivated forgetting.’
Now whilst motivated forgetting cannot be used to explain all forms of memory loss, it would seem that it is responsible for the loss (or repression) of some particularly violent, or emotional memories. Especially those from childhood.
One other way that the phenomenon of ‘forgetting’ sometimes seems to occur, is when one memory blocks another. This is known as ‘Interference.’ This interference can manifest itself in one of two distinct forms. These are:
Proactive interference occurs when one piece of information, which has already been committed to memory, interferes with the formation of a new memory.
A good example of this would be if someone learned the German for one particular word and then subsequently attempted to learn the Spanish for that same word.
Now if the learning of the Spanish word interfered with that individual’s already existing memory of the German word (thus making it difficult to recall), then that would be termed ‘Proactive interference.’
Using the above example, Retroactive interference would occur if the memory of the German word interfered with the individual’s ability to learn the Spanish word.
Interference of one memory by another is one possible explanation of why we find it so difficult to recall a great deal of the memories that are stored away in our brains, and it is prudent when studying a text, to be aware of this phenomenon.
By the way, the techniques outlined in this site do take into account the phenomenon of interference.
One more form of memory loss, a form that is mainly experienced by long-term alcoholics, is known as Korsakoff’s syndrome.
This condition is caused by a long-term thiamine deficiency. A deficiency that occurs as a result of excessive drinking and under-eating over a number of years. This results in severe damage to the hypocampus, and people with this syndrome have great difficulty forming new memories.
Korsakoff’s syndrome is the most common form of anterograde amnesia.
To conclude this section of the site I would just like to mention the fact that permanent loss of memory is a rare thing indeed, and most people live out their entire life, with an incredible storehouse of memories locked away somewhere in the 1, 300g lump of tissue, that is the human brain. Also, regardless of what most people seem to believe, human memory does not deteriorate significantly with age. Age merely slows down the speed of recall. In a well-exercised mind, this may not be by very much at all.