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The Decay Theory

Updated: May 8, 2020

Within my research into the two forms of memory, I am interesting in the loss of each and ways in which they can decay. Whilst with the digital form of memory, when items are lost its normally due to a glitch or technology corruption, however human memory is a lot more interesting. I have read a few psychology website posts about the decay of memory and reasons we lose our memories and selected some interesting sections of information that are below.


Memory is not perfect. Storing a memory and retrieving it later involves both biological and psychological processes, and the relationship between the two is not fully understood. Memories are affected by how a person internalises events through perceptions, interpretations, and emotions. This can cause a divergence between what is internalised as a memory and what actually happened in reality; it can also cause events to encode incorrectly, or not at all. Our memories are not infallible: over time, without use, memories decay and we lose the ability to retrieve them. It is easier to remember recent events than those further in the past, and the more we repeat or use information, the more likely it is to enter into long-term memory. However, without use, or with the addition of new memories, old memories can decay. “Transience” refers to the general deterioration of a specific memory over time. Transience is caused by proactive and retroactive interference. Proactive interference is when old information inhibits the ability to remember new information, such as when outdated scientific facts interfere with the ability to remember updated facts. Retroactive interference is when new information inhibits the ability to remember old information, such as when hearing recent news figures, then trying to remember earlier facts and figures.
Encoding Failure Encoding is the process of converting sensory input into a form able to be processed and stored in the memory. However, this process can be impacted by a number of factors, and how well information is encoded affects how well it is able to be recalled later. Memory is associative by nature; commonalities between points of information not only reinforce old memories, but serve to ease the establishment of new ones. The way memories are encoded is personal; it depends on what information an individual considers to be relevant and useful, and how it relates to the individual’s vision of reality. All of these factors impact how memories are prioritised and how accessible they will be when they are stored in long-term memory. Information that is considered less relevant or less useful will be harder to recall than memories that are deemed valuable and important. Memories that are encoded poorly or shallowly may not be recoverable at all.
Types of Forgetting There are many ways in which a memory might fail to be retrieved, or be forgotten. Memory is not static. How you remember an event depends on a large number of variables, including everything from how much sleep you got the night before to how happy you were during the event. Memory is not always perfectly reliable, because it is influenced not only by the actual events it records, but also by other knowledge, experiences, expectations, interpretations, perceptions, and emotions. And memories are not necessarily permanent: they can disappear over time. This process is called forgetting. But why do we forget? The answer is currently unknown. There are several theories that address why we forget memories and information over time, including trace decay theory, interference theory, and cue-dependent forgetting.
Trace Decay Theory: The trace decay theory of forgetting states that all memories fade automatically as a function of time. Under this theory, you need to follow a certain pathway, or trace, to recall a memory. If this pathway goes unused for some amount of time, the memory decays, which leads to difficulty recalling, or the inability to recall, the memory. Rehearsal, or mentally going over a memory, can slow this process. But disuse of a trace will lead to memory decay, which will ultimately cause retrieval failure. This process begins almost immediately if the information is not used: for example, sometimes we forget a person’s name even though we have just met them.
The Psychology of Forgetting and Why Memory Fails: Forgetting is an all too common part of daily life. Sometimes these memory slips are simple and fairly innocuous, such as forgetting to return a phone call. Other times, forgetting can be much more dire and even have serious consequences, such as an eyewitness forgetting important details about a crime. Why do we forget? From forgetting where you left your keys to forgetting to return a phone call, memory failures are an almost daily occurrence. Forgetting is so common that you probably rely on numerous methods to help you remember important information such as jotting down notes in a daily planner or scheduling important events on your phone's calendar. As you are frantically searching for your missing car keys, it may seem that the information about where you left them is permanently gone from your memory. However, forgetting is generally not about actually losing or erasing this information from your long-term memory. Forgetting typically involves a failure in memory retrieval. While the information is somewhere in your long-term memory, you are not able to actually retrieve and remember it.
Time's Role in Forgetting: Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was one of the first to scientifically study forgetting. In experiments where he used himself as the subject, Ebbinghaus tested his memory using three-letter nonsense syllables. He relied on such nonsense words because using previously known words would have involved drawing on his existing knowledge and associations in his memory. In order to test for new information, Ebbinghaus tested his memory for periods of time ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days. His results, plotted in what is known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, revealed a relationship between forgetting and time. Initially, information is often lost very quickly after it is learned. Factors such as how the information was learned and how frequently it was rehearsed play a role in how quickly these memories are lost.
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