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Page last updated January 30, 2018

Forgetting: When Memory Lapses
                  Ebbinghaus]A. How Quickly We Forget: Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve
  • Earliest studies of forgetting were done by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885)
  • "nonsense" syllables (consonant-vowel-consonant, e.g., XOR, LIM, WEP, etc.).
                  (1885) Forgetting Curve

B. Measures of Forgetting

  • Retention: Proportion of material which is retained or remembered
  • Recall: Reproduce information without any cues
  • Recognition: Select previously learned information from an array of options
  • Relearning: How long does it take to relearn what you had previously learned?

C. Why We Forget

1. Ineffective Coding

2. Decay = memory traces fade with age

3. Interference Problem = forgetting information because of competition from other material
  • Retroactive Interference: New learning interferes with old learning (NIO)
  • Proactive Interference: Old learning interferes with new learning (OIN)
Interference in Memory

4. Retrieval Failure
5. "Motivated" Forgetting

Freud two photos
  • Sigmund Freud (1901): Described a process he called "repression"

Franklin Case of Repressed MemoriesThe Repressed Memory Controversy
  • 1980s-1990s: Individuals began reporting to their therapists the recollection of memories, long buried from the past, which claimed experiences of sexual abuse, traumas, and even the witnessing of murder. These memories were considered to be "repressed" as Freud suggested.
  • Parents, teachers, and others were identified as the abusers and some were tried before the courts and convicted.
  • As the years went on, multiple questions arose whether repressed memories actually exist and, if so, which of those reported were factual.
    • Some memories were legally discredited, e.g., George Franklin case
    • Argument that some of these memories were suggested by therapists
    • Elizabeth Loftus: research showing some false memories can be implanted
    • PTSD patients show too many memories
  • Bottom line
    • abuse is more widespread than we used to think. 
    • "Repressed memories" are forms of "believed-in imaginings," that is, even if not factually true, the person reporting them believes them to be true
    • Therapists and others (e.g., police) need to be very careful not to suggest that there are buried memories


This page originally posted on 9/26/07