What Is The Forgetting Curve in Psychology (And How to Overcome Forgetting)?

“Shit. I forgot!” How often do you say these words? Me, personally? A lot. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re stupid. Simply, there is this thing called the forgetting curve. As mysterious as it might sound, the concept is quite easy to grasp. In short, the forgetting curve model explains that what we know slowly disappears from our operating memory when there is no attempt on our end to retain the information. Plainly, it’s unlikely to learn, and remember, how to hand-forge a Damascus steel katana by watching a single YouTube video on the subject. You need to continuously expose yourself to the information, plus actually practice hand-forging, to master the subject. And this applies to everything we want to learn and remember. The more we practice, the more we won’t forget. But there is more to that if we want to overcome forgetting…

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory. And yes, you guessed it, he’s the person who actually discovered the forgetting curve phenomenon.1

For a period of 5 years, he tested himself on various tasks. He wanted to figure out for how long a fact, something new he learned, remained in his memory; What he can do to increase the rate of his learning; And, what type of corrections he can do to maximize the period of which the thing he learned will actually remain in his memory – i.e. strengthen his memory.

What he found is not that surprising – at least today. Basically, our minds immediately start to forget the new information we consume. The same is true with the information we already know. The more time passes, the more we forget the things (skills, techniques, languages, etc.) we don’t regularly use or practice.

As you can imagine, this tendency is quite unfavorable for us. As the online world expands, and as the rate of things we should know increases. We shouldn’t worry only about learning new things. We should also worry about ensuring that what we know is not forgotten. As if our memory, quite literally, is playing against us.

The corporate world demands from us to learn new things all the time to stay competitive. While in contrast, our brains are looking for ways to ditch parts of what we know so they can keep functioning properly and keep our sanity.

Before the Internet, we had access only to a small number of resources. Now, regardless of your industry, you’d have to mine data daily to endure in the corporate world – and not only.

This leads us to a question: How are we supposed to keep things in our memories for longer – overcome forgetting – given the fact that our minds are designed to dump, immediately, what we’re consuming?

There is a way. Don’t worry. It will require a bit of strategizing and quite of repetition. But if you master the basics, you can hold more of the learned material and also keep it in your always-forgetting brain for a longer period.

Our journey on how to strengthen our memory begins with a detailed overview of how the Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve actually works:

What is Hermann Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve?

Hermann Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve explains that we are unable to hold newly introduced information for a long period of time. In fact, the founder of this concept discovered that we start to forget what we just acquired as information, quite literally, immediately after we’re exposed to it. Unless we re-learn, note, practice, what’s new to us. We’ll completely remove it from our memories in a matter of days.

Hermann Ebbinghaus came to this conclusion after trying to memorize made words like “WID”, “ZOF and “KAF”. Then, he tested himself to see how many of these words he remembered.2

The results were quite sad for humanity. The rate of forgetting starts almost immediately after we close the books and continues to decrease until it disappears completely from our brain.

This is how it looks on a graph:

graph showing how the newly learned slowly disappears from your memory
The forgetting curve basically shows how information is lost over time when you don’t try to retain it.

But why is this happening and why our brains are unable to hold new concepts for more than a minute?

Why the Forgetting Curve Exist?

When it comes down to remembering new information, the most profitable habit you can cultivate is the habit of reexposing yourself to the thing you want to master.

For example…

  • Want to become better at playing the piano? Do it more often.
  • Want to learn how to set up your own server, connect it to a database, set different API requests to gather information automatically? Get up and immediately start staring at the terminal.
  • What to learn Spanish? Find a partner and have conversations with him/her in Spanish daily. Also, practice listening, reading, writing, and speaking in Spanish.

But before you go back to school, sort to say, it’s equally important to understand how our brains are wired. Why we’re so bad at remembering and why the forgetting curve exists in the first place.

A quick detour…

Imagine for a minute walking into a bar full of people. Let’s say that it’s a place you’ve never entered before. For a split second, your mind is exposed to a ton of new information. There are faces all around. Different kinds of smells. Probably music is playing and your kids – yes, let’s say that you are with your family – start to run around into the unknown terrain. All of this outside input gets processed by the brain. But does the brain need all of this new information? Is it helpful for you to remember the sign of the carelessly attached wallpaper on the wall behind the awkward-looking bartender? Most certainly not! The brain will focus on the essentials: finding your kids, navigating to the bar where you can order, and probably spotting the bathroom label so you can wash your kids when they cover their faces with ice cream.

Similar things happen to us all the time.

We are constantly exposed to new information – it’s called sensory information. The new inputs are processed by our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. And internally, what we experience is handled by our nervous system.

All of the outside data is stored briefly in our sensory memory. After a bit of prioritizing, it’s either transferred to our short-term memory or completely forgotten.

For the brain, and for us as well, it doesn’t make sense to intake and keep everything we experience – it will be overwhelming and unproductive. That’s why the brain dumps the massive amount of data collected and keeps only the things that will be important for our survival.

process showing how new info is first processed by the sensory memory

Only a small percentage of what we encounter remains in our brains. Most notably pleasant or unpleasant experiences. The rest is quickly removed.

Or if we can sum up everything just said: Forgetting exists to ensure that our brains won’t malfunction by collecting every single piece of data we engage with when we are roaming the world. The goal is to store only information related to our long-term goals and desires. This system exists because the brain needs operating power to focus on the most important thing: keeping us alive.

With that being said, let’s see why understanding the forgetting curve is important:

Why Understanding the Forgetting Curve is Important?

What we have just learned is the following: The brain is hardwired to forget newly introduced information quickly because we’ll otherwise malfunction. We are constantly exposed to all kinds of new sensations. If the brain tries to store everything, we’ll literally choke. ​Since this is the case, we need to teach the brain that what we’re trying to learn is vital for our survival.

I mean, learning how to play an instrument is probably not as important as knowing how to start a fire with sticks. But what if you want to switch careers and become a musician? Then, mastering an instrument becomes your tool to get food. This shift in the way you think about what you want to learn will help you better concentrate when you are practicing and tell your brain something like: “Look, we need to become the best at playing the guitar. Otherwise, we’ll starve!”

Understanding that you’re bound to forget what you’re currently reading and trying to master will make you more strategic with the information. You will finally realize that watching a short video about [the subject you want to understand] won’t make you good. You won’t even remember the video after a day. That’s why, once you know that this devil-made thing called the forgetting curve exists. You will take notes while you watch, create a plan about watching the video again, and set a schedule to repeat and practice.

What Factors Influence The Speed of Forgetting?

Besides time and how our brains are programmed, there are other factors that prevent us from storing for longer the newly introduced concepts – yes, it’s even harder than you think.

The things that sabotage our ability to hold new information are the following:

  • Relevance of the information: If what you are trying to learn is in a completely different field than what you already know – learning Chinese for example when you only know English – it will be quite hard to get even the basics. Or in other words, new information that is way out of your comfort zone is considered difficult. Hence, your brain will try its best to ignore it.
  • Presentation: People love bite-sized how-to videos and guides for a simple reason: the brain loves these too. When something is easy to get, we actually get it. We feel like we are making progress and this positively contributes to our retention. So, if the person teaching us the material is able to properly present it, we’ll learn quicker. If the presentation is not engaging, our minds will wander.
  • Physiological factors: If you’re tired, sleep-deprived, overworked, sad, you recently lost your job, your mind will have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. How you feel, inside, heavily influences how you think and how you manage everything coming from the outside – this also includes the information coming your way.

Despite all of these obstacles, learning does get easier.

Thankfully, after realizing how fragile his memory was, the founder of the forgetting curve, Hermann Ebbinghaus, brainstormed possible solutions to strengthen and increase his retention rate.

Here are a couple of solutions to overcome forgetting:

How to Overcome Forgetting and Strengthen Your Memory?

OK, I believe it’s clear now. The brain is doing all possible to dumb information so it can properly function. However, in the 21st century, your occupation requires you to constantly learn new things. You need to learn, hold, and practice new concepts so you can stay on top of your game.

This creates a clash: On the one side, your brain is unwilling to obtain and hold new information because it’s a resource-consuming process. On the other, you need to continuously introduce yourself to new concepts to keep your job and essentially provide food for your family.

So what do you do?

Let’s get acquainted with a couple of specific techniques that will help you hold newly introduced concepts for a longer period and at the same time strengthen your memory:

1. Make New Information Relevant

The easiest way to learn new things is by associating the unfamiliar concepts with things you already know. Take for example learning a new language. The first thing you’d want to do is learn the alphabet of the new language you’d want to study. And of course – this will even happen subconsciously – you will try to connect, in a way, the letters from the alphabet you know to the new one.

For instance, if you want to learn Chinese, you can search something like this on Google: How Chinese characters are pronounced in English.3

After researching the alphabet, you will want to associate the new letters with those you already know.

This happens usually automatically. The brain will take the new input and try to understand it based on what is already internally present. But the more you’re conscious about this, the more you can find relevant facts and ideas.

So, think about how the new information relates to what you already know.

Ask yourself these two questions:

  • What new did you learn?
  • What do you already know?
  • How the new info relates to what you know?

Try to make more connections between existing concepts in your brain to make it harder for the new material to flee.

2. Regularly Learning and Spaced Repetition

No doubt, the best way to combat the forgetting curve is by learning regularly. Why? The reason is simple. Since unlearning happens over time, the more you introduce the brain to the new information, the more you’re telling the brain something like this: This is important, you need to keep this!

Of course, it also happens that what you read starts to make more sense. More internal links are formed in the brain that reinforces the memory. And, information is moved from your short-term memory to your long-term memory.

graph showing how spaced repetition is helping you remember better
The more you practice, re-learn, the more you’ll increase the retention.

There are two major points in this section that require your attention:

First, of course, is simply learning regularly new information. Say you are reading a book on a given topic. In this example, it will be important to read daily. Don’t read a page today and another one after 10 days. Simply schedule time to read every day.

Secondly, spaced repetition. Since finishing a book or completing a course online won’t last long unless you do something with the information. You need to schedule regular sessions where you re-read and re-watch the initial concepts. Plus, of course, practice the new material.

a card (front and back) showing the Chinese word for to arrange
You can use online tools – or simply create your own box of flashcards – to practice the thing you want to learn and master.

This concept, the spaced repetition, is usually performed with flashcards. During your initial learning session, you create flashcards. Inside, you write the essential concepts. Then, you schedule a time to reread these cards and also to test yourself on the concepts. The frequency will increase your retention.4

3. Create a Learning Culture

Staying curious is a major component for every successful individual. If you think that learning is something that happens only when you are in school or in college, you have a very wrong approach to how things evolve in life. Everything is changing. There is nothing constant. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, more than 2000 years ago said, “The Only Constant in Life Is Change.”

If you want to increase your profits in the future. If you want to reach financial wellness and eventually become your own boss. Or, simply have a thriving career where you don’t need to worry about losing your current job because the skills you have will easily help you find another job. You need to continuously expose yourself to new information.

Sadly, with age, we forget that new things should be learned. We start to feel entitled. That our current experience is enough. That working this job for 10, 20 years is something that makes us superior. But that’s not the case – or at least it shouldn’t be. New things and new concepts are constantly discovered. Therefore, we also need to discover them.

Two graphs. One declining (when not learning new things). One ascending (when we do learn new things).
The difference between introducing yourself to new things and not doing it.

Don’t wait for your organization to sign you up for seminars or buy you books. Embrace learning culture for yourself and for your family. Schedule time with yourself where you expose yourself to something new. It can be totally unrеlated to your main domain of expertise. The idea is to get a wide range of skills in your brain. The benefits here are twofold: You become better prepared for the wicked world we live in. And, you adopt a habit of learning. This way you are flexing your brain. Not letting it wear away.

Some Closing Thoughts

There is a good reason eyewitness testimony is not reliable. As we just saw, our brains are really bad at retaining information. That’s why courts nowadays don’t rely solely on eyewitnesses of a crime. They want more hard evidence.5

Hopefully, you don’t have to worry about courts and judges. But you do have to worry about your fleeting memory. With every lapsing moment, what you know about the world decreases. What you know about your field slowly evaporates from your always busy mind.

To battle the forgetting curve, you need to become a voracious reader. To become a starving learner. Someone who is eager to upgrade his mind. To observe new concepts and also to return to the things you already know and ensure that you actually know them. But more importantly, you need to pay close attention to the things you consume. The more toxic information you introduce in your life, the more it will sabotage your whole system.

Find your passions and become a hungry explorer of our beautiful world. This way, you will always be in good mood. And more importantly, you’ll always stay competitive in the digital age.


Footnotes:

  1. Hermann Ebbinghaus is mostly known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.
  2. Hermann Ebbinghaus experimented by trying to remember a string of made words, as mentioned – “WID”, “ZOF and “KAF”. His conclusion was expressed with a mathematical equation. In short, the retrievability, R, is based on how easy it is to retrieve a piece of information from memory, how stable is the memory, and how much time has passed since something was learned.
  3. This article for example: Chinese Alphabet and Pronunciation
  4. You can check these Chinese words flashcards to get the idea.
  5. According to this publication, the malleable nature of human memory makes eyewitness testimony one of the most unreliable forms of evidence.
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