Science of Learning: Forgetting and Remembering



I forget exactly why, but as an undergrad, I took an interest in Celtic culture and history. And after concluding that the Romans more or less ended Celtic culture, for me, the Great Empire came to represent all that was wrong with the world. The Romans used their discipline, order, and written language – i.e., notes – to subdue and oppress their far more interesting Celtic neighbors, who were fond of battling naked or clothed only in blue paint, and had cool names like Vercingetorix and Boudicca. Or so Caesar and other Romans tell us. We don’t really know the Celtic side, because they did not take good written notes.

I might have allowed myself to become bitter, stewing in a misplaced hatred of Roman prowess, were it not for encountering Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of ressentiment. I came to realize that my evaluation took the form of ressentiment because all the qualities I associated with “Rome” I labeled as supremely bad, and the non-Roman qualities I associated with the Celts I then deemed good. As such, I was on the path toward a resentful and reactionary worldview. Luckily, I jettisoned the messed-up value system that was based on resentment and denigrated the qualities that led to success, and I learned to better appreciate the Roman stoic virtues of reason, discipline, and taking good notes.

Related to Nietzsche’s notion of ressentiment is his insight regarding how forgetting is a necessary part of living a full and agential life. In his allegory of personal development, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he offered a nineteenth-century model of the growth mindset. According to this view, successful personal growth usually requires that we first cultivate our sense of duty, bear our burdens with fidelity, and do our part. But this mode of life can easily stagnate into passive acceptance of the status quo. To continue our development, we must undergo a second metamorphosis and learn to become an ideological warrior who stands against power and injustice. This mode of living is good for a while, but this form of living is inherently reactive, and it often evolves into a life of ressentiment and sometimes even nihilism. At this point arises the need for a third metamorphosis, whereby we shed our ressentiment and learn to live at a higher level of innocence and forgetfulness. We sluff off the old, self-righteous anger against an enemy that has become unduly vilified, and we embrace the world as we would a playful game. We become an active, happy force that says Yes to life, to living, and to the world. (One might say that the last two stages are naturalistic versions of the Buddhist notions of abandoning fetters and of rebirth.)

Being able to forget, to let go, to forgive yourself and others is a valuable skill. You hear this a lot in sports commentary. Cornerbacks, pitchers, goalies, and others who give up big plays have to learn to let it go and focus on what comes next. If we carry forward the anxiety of failure, our performance is diminished. While the anxiety of failure can also be relevant to us as students and learners, forgetting is generally not the problem. Remembering is. With that in mind, the article will now offer some helpful information on forgetting and remembering.


Study strategy discussions often involve two tasks: (1) to get information through the working memory bottleneck and into long-term memory, and (2) to get things out of long-term memory and onto the test. To move information into long-term memory, we can use rote memorization, but encoding strategies that reduce the cognitive load of the information and make connections between the new information and what we already know are usually more effective. As noted above, however, getting the information into the brain is only half the game. For academic success, you also need to get the information back out. And this is where forgetting becomes a problem.

People often imagine the brain as something like a vacuum cleaner or a sponge, and in some ways, perhaps it is. It can be helpful to realize, however, that the brain doesn’t seem to function in this way. The brain is understood to have three memory stores: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory. These aren’t real things in the brain. They are just concepts that align well with our best evidence for how the mind seems to work. Understanding this can help us make sense of why certain study strategies seem to work better than others.

Our brain is constantly bombarded with countless pieces of information. The vast majority of it is of little importance to us, and so the information is allowed to “go in one ear and out the other” – and this forgetting is a good thing. For example, as I look out my office window, I see the Hort Building, with countless bricks. What if my brain tried, against my wishes, to memorize each of those bricks, with their tiny differences in color and such? What if it tried to memorize each of the leaves I also see on the trees, bushes, and grass in front of the building? There is no way I would ever get anything done. Besides, by the time I memorized 1/10th of the leaves on one tree, many would have fallen off, and all would have changed at least a little. The brain does not memorize everything we see and hear. Like our feet and our nose, its job is to keep us alive by helping us find food, avoid becoming food, and perpetuate the species. We have millions of years of encoded memories to help us do these things, and there is much we learn, related to survival, with little effort. But we don’t have nearly as much evolutionary support for learning and then remembering abstract formulas or the names of random theorists we have never met. So, its even harder to get those sorts of things into the head and back out.

The Forgetting Curve

Since at least 1880, people have been studying the rate at which we forget. Because those before us developed the habit of writing this sort of stuff down, we benefit from the accumulation of knowledge. Hermann Ebbinghaus is one person we can thank in this regard. He experimented on himself and came up with two principles that have had remarkable staying power. His first principle was that there are better and worse ways to try to learn and remember something. These memory aids are called mnemonic devices. You are likely familiar with Roy G Biv and his wacky family of mnemoniacs that help us remember all sorts of things. Today we know that memory techniques are often most effective when we are able to (a) connect the new information to something we already know or (b) reduce the memory load of the new information by chunking bits together or by visualizing them in ways that effectively reduce the number of items to be remembered. You can think about these as tips to get it in the brain. Ebbinghaus’s second principle for increasing learning was what we today call retrieval practice. This was discussed in the last Science of Learning article The basic premise is that you should go back and re-read and reconsider your class notes and reading notes immediately after you take them, then do so again within 24 hours after you first write them, and then again within a week. Search Forgetting Curve and you will find many graphs that illustrate this principle. The main idea behind this idea is that the more often we pull something up from our long-term memory into our working memory (consciousness), think about it, and then replace it in long-term memory, the more likely we are to remember it.

To forget is human. We forget on a grand scale each minute in order to function well. To remember is actually the exception. To remember something, you have to convince your mind that it is important enough to remember. For natural learning events – those things linked to our survival and often connected to our limbic system – this doesn’t require much effort on our part. The stuff you learn in college often does. To convince your brain that this is worth remembering will require a little more work. Paying attention, actively processing the information, and reviewing it in spaced intervals is likely the best way to do this. So, find ways to incorporate these into your study routine. Happy studying!

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