Eli5: why do we forget things?


Is it just bad memory or is it something else I can’t control. I sometimes forget family members names, birthdays, stuff people asked me to do, or just forgetting what I just said. Can someone explain please?

In: Biology

Not paying attention as you put your attention on other things. Ie. Being told to do a chore and forgetting. Your brain never put the memory into “long term” memory. So the memory left your mind. There’s just somethings you naturally feel is less important like other people’s birthdays so it never goes from “short term” to “long term”. As long as you don’t forget your own birthday tho, it’s perfectly normal.

Memory has three stages; learning (acquiring new information), encoding (storing it into memory), and retrieving (accessing your stored memory). When you forget, there is a failure in one or more of these stages.

There are many reasons and causes for a failure in one or more of these stages, but the good news is that you can actually improve your memory through training and practice. Playing word and memory games are the best way to accomplish this. Crosswords are consistently used in scientific memory studies, and are considered just about the best game a person can play to improve their memory. Jeopardy is pretty good, too.

When you learn new things your brain connects this new information to many others you already possess. Let’s say you’re a child and know the color red already because you like apples and your mom always buys the red ones.

Now while out in the park with your mom you realize a car as an object for the first time. And the car is also red as an apple. Your mom then tells you it’s a car which allows your brain to connect “red” with the picture of a red car and the word “car” as verbal information.

And your brain doesn’t rest there. Without you noticing it might connect a lot more information f.e. the loud noise the car makes, people sitting inside it, a colorful image on its door etc.

But the strongest connections are those involving emotions. The more extreme the emotion connected to something, the less likely it is to forget it (forgetting because of a trauma of some sort excluded).
That’s why you can (hopefully) always remember your first kiss but also the first broken heart.

Ok, back to the kid.
In time your brain will update the information it already connected. You will learn that not all cars are red for example and therefore the more information is updated, the more precise your mental image of a car gets.

And then there’s the information your brain forgets over time. This happens because the information is not being requested often and as a result its connections get weaker. The lesser connections the faster you forget.
If you would never again see a car after this one time, your brain might lose this information some day. Or it might transform to a mental image of a scary metal beast because you were scared hearing the loud motor sounds and the devils face on its door when seeing it. Maybe you even start to believe it was a dream.

Now this is all very simplified and I simply recall what I learned and I’m no expert but I still hope I explained it ok 😊