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Forgetting is a Part of Memory: Richard Morris

4 months ago

by Julia Daley


I’m sure we all have had experiences in our lives that were memorable precisely because of something important we forgot—a coat, a suitcase, a passport, a name, etc. We usually blame ourselves for these lapses, don’t we? I know I do. I’m personally ashamed of my superhuman ability to forget a name within seconds of hearing it. I’ve developed some coping strategies to try to prevent this, like repeatedly using the new name in conversation and repeating it to myself throughout the day, but there’s a limit to how many new names I can learn to remember in a day. Perhaps you can imagine just how agonizing a new school term is, with the sheer number of new names I have to learn. Taking attendance of my students each day is a real challenge! Oh, if only my memory was more reliable, surely, I could remember my students’ names then?


In fact, forgetting is a critical part of our memories! When we forget something, it means our memories are working as they are intended to do. At least, that is what I’ve learned from our two lead-in videos for this month’s issue: Daniel Schacter’s “The Seven Sins of Memory” (LITE)


and Richard Morris’ “Forgetting is a Part of Memory” (DEEP).


For this overview, I’ll be focusing on the latter video—for a deeper look at the former, please read the next article, In Honor of a Terrible Memory. Issue 3 IS

According to Morris, forgetting is an integral part of the human experience. It’s something we all do, because it’s a necessary part of our brains. Just think for a moment what would happen if we could not forget anything: we would remember every little thing, from the breakfast we ate to the clothes we wore, for days and days on end. The important things, the things we really want to remember, would be drowned in the minutiae!

Initially, at least, we do automatically form memories of everything we experience throughout the day (or at least what we’re paying attention to), says Morris. But in the process of memory formation, we are also simultaneously undergoing the process of forgetting. Our hippocampus, the hub of all this connectivity, decides which memories are worth remembering and which are inconsequential. Then, over a period of hours or a day or two, Morris explains how the connections of these unimportant memories fade away (i.e. are forgotten).

So, if Morris asks you what you ate for breakfast today, you can (probably) still remember. But if he asks you what you ate for breakfast yesterday, or last week, or last month, you probably don’t remember at all. And that, according to Morris, would be your memory working as intended.

Morris goes on to explain how this simultaneous remember-and-forget process can be temporarily turned off. He mentions that during novel or surprising situations, especially terrifying ones, our brains throw out the usual playbook, and instead remember everything down to the smallest of details. When our adrenaline is running high, the hippocampus does not have time to sort the consequentiality of our memories—for all it knows in the moment, the color of the shirt you are wearing may have had a direct impact on the car accident you were involved in. So, it records everything with the strongest possible of Sconnections. That explains how, if Morris were to ask me what I ate for breakfast on September 11, 2001, I could not only tell him that, but also the color of the sky, and exactly where I sat on the couch watching everything unfold on my TV.

While watching Morris’ and Schacter’s pieces on forgetting didn’t teach me any tricks for remembering the names of the people I meet, they both did help me to see that maybe forgetting isn’t such a terrible thing after all. Instead of blaming myself for my terrible memory, I’ll instead wonder why my hippocampus has decided that there is nothing consequential whatsoever about remembering the names of my students! N 2434-1002 March 1, 2019


Julia Daley is an Assistant Supervisor of English for the Himeji Board of Education. She earned her M.A. in TESL from Northern Arizona University and is certified to teach in Arizona. She currently teaches English at Himeji High School and Lifelong Learning College in Himeji, Japan.


The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG
Volume 5, Issue 3, ISSN-2434-1002, March 1, 2019

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