Neuropsychology: why do we forget?


We have several types of memories, and the information we store is more accessible the more often we recall it. But what is forgetting? Why do we forget? Why do some memories resist oblivion better than others? When should we worry about forgetfulness? Explanations with Dr. Sylvie Chokron, neuropsychologist.

Forgetting corresponds to the situation in which we cannot retrieve a memory on demand. Forgetting affects all types of memory : autobiographical, didactic and even prospective memory, since we can also forget a proper name, a code, an itinerary that we have known in the past, a text that we have learned … Forgetting does not necessarily mean that a memory is gone, it may just be difficult to recover. This is why we can sometimes recognize information among others when it is difficult to recall it freely.

Why do we forget?

It seems that forgetting is due to two phenomena, on the one hand the fact that the memory can deteriorate, especially if we have not looked for this information for a while, and on the other hand because we have memorized other close information which has come to alter older information by interference.

Some memories resist oblivion better than others. The more regularly a trace is used and sought, the more firmly it will be anchored in our memory and unlikely to be forgotten. For example, if you dial a phone number every day, you’ll remember it quickly, but if you stop dialing that number for a few weeks, you might forget it. In addition, learned and fully automated skills such as cycling, swimming, driving, etc. are much more resistant to forgetting, even in patients who also have major memory problems.

Very young children and even infants are endowed with an already very efficient memory, yet most often we cannot evoke our first memories. According to Freud, this infantile amnesia is due to repression. From a neuroscientific point of view, infantile amnesia could be due to the fact that the first memories were acquired at a stage when the child has no language, and when his perceptual and motor abilities are radically different from that that they will become from the age of 3. This difference in context between the creation of the memory and its recovery would explain the inability to recover very early memories.

In addition, one can also think that the mnesic system is still immature and makes the conservation and the evocation of the first memories too fragile to be preserved.

When should we worry about forgetfulness?

Forgetting fortunately does not always correspond to a disease of the memory. Our forgetfulness can come from a lack of availability, that is to say from a lack of attention either in the event of physical fatigue or when we are preoccupied. Moreover, in some cases, it may be necessary to forget, especially when you have experienced a traumatic event.

We must also accept that as we age, our memory plays tricks on us, and we risk forgetting more and more information, on the one hand due to the physiological aging of the structures involved in the different stages of memorization but also because the amount of information memorized is likely to create more interference.

As a general rule, it is those around you who worry the most about a loved one’s oversights, especially when they become disabling. It is worth worrying when these omissions affect information that is well known to the patient and especially when the patient does not seem to be aware of it. The forgetting becomes massive, and is called progressive forgetting, that is to say, the inability to learn when the hippocampus is affected in both hemispheres.

Helping patients who suffer from many forgetfulness

Following a head injury or stroke , and in the case of other illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease , patients may have great difficulty remembering information acquired before the injury or yet to memorize new information. It is first necessary to identify the stage and the type of deficient process so that the rehabilitation is effective and at the same time teach them to use aids to alleviate their memory disorder to avoid as much as possible the social and professional embarrassment caused by these disorders. We can also try to automate certain tasks which, as a result, will no longer involve the memory.

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