As much research as there is on the human brain, there are still a lot of mysteries that elude us. Especially when it comes to trying to understand how and why brains remember certain things and forget others. Even when we feel like we have solid and clear memories of certain moments, there is a good chance that your brain is lying to you.
There has been an assortment of theories making claims about the limits of what brains can do in the last century. One that’s gained a lot of popularity is George A. Miller’s research paper on how brains can only hold 7 items in short-term memory at a time. This has gone on to be one of the most cited papers in the field of memory and psychology and has become so widely accepted that it’s become a central consideration when designing user experiences. Don’t give users more than 7 steps to complete, don’t make users read lists longer than 7. We design around the magical 7 to make things easier for people thanks to knowing about this limit on our short-term memory.
But that’s short-term memory, it can be trained to improve and it varies from person to person. Long-term memory works differently and in ways that we still struggle to understand.
How much am I forgetting?
German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus is credited with developing the famous ‘Forgetting Curve’ — a mathematical formula which hypothesizes the rate at which we forget information after it has been learned. Initially experimenting on himself, Ebbinghaus concluded that the forgetting curve is very steep at the beginning, but levels out over time. Ebbinghaus also discovered that the steep drop of the learning curve at the beginning could be lessened by repeat learning of the information at certain intervals. This forms the basis of the ‘Spaced Repetition’ theory where interval repetitive learning strengthens our ability to retain information. In other words, the more we repeat what we’ve learned, the more likely we are to remember it for longer periods of time.
While this is a great method to approach learning and studying, it takes a lot of time. When trying to remember everyday things you aren’t going to set up a study schedule to remember everything that came up in your morning meeting. And even if you did, it would be easier to let someone, or something else, remember the details for you.
When it comes to long-term memories we are susceptible to both outside opinions as well as our emotional connection to those moments. Our memories aren’t static, they change over time, sometimes becoming complete fabrications that we would swear are true. There have been decades of research done on what specialist call “flashbulb” moments. Big historic moments that we live through, that everyone assumes are seared into the minds of the witnesses. But what research in this area has shown is that even very confident people often can’t keep their stories straight.
While this uncertainty can be concerning, our brains have a good reason for why we forget things.
Why forgetting is important
Our brains are constantly processing information, even when we’re asleep. When you learn something new you start to make connections to things you already know. This helps with recall and with understanding new information but it’s exhausting work for a brain, which is why people feel tired after taking in a lot of new information.
In our day to day lives we have what researchers call ‘episodic memories’, these are our daily activities, things that happen regularly. We tend to forget these memories over time without ever really noticing their disappearance. It’s auto selection performed by your brain, picking and choosing what parts of your life seem more meaningful to remember. While not having a conscious choice in the matter, it’s actually an extremely helpful brain adaptation that researchers believe makes the human brain more powerful than a artificially intelligent brains.
“Ridding certain types of information from your brain is valuable for your functioning: it helps your brain make note of the most important things that happen to us.” — Katherine Foley
Katherine Foley, writing for Quartz, explains how this automated deletion process is something unique to brains that AI model systems are unable to currently copy. Though researchers are hoping to design algorithms that could help mimic this natural forgetting process in the future.
As you start to understand the different kinds of memories humans have and the way we access them it’s hard to stop the computer/brain metaphor from creeping in. Delete memory, free up space. But if you talk to other researchers they would tell you that there is no limit on your brain, that every memory is actually stored in their somewhere. Which is a nice idea, but if we don’t have a reliable way to access memories, keeping them in some recess of our brain isn’t overly helpful. Instead, letting ourselves forget things so we can focus on more readily valuable information can help us make choices faster.
Let your brain forget, let Luffa remember
For decades we have been using computers as a metaphor to talk about brains, it was the most similar concept we had. But there’s a problem with it, the metaphor is extremely misleading, which leads us into limiting our conversations around how brains work.
“There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.” — Robert Epstein
The truth is, our brains are nothing like computers. We don’t forget things to free up space, we actually forget things for important reasons. To prioritize the most important memories.
“It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.” — Blake Richards
Computers and AI systems are designed to store as much as they can, but they struggle with information that becomes outdated. Without some outside force making them manually remove this data, they value it the same as the rest of the information they have access to. No one needs a detailed memory of their everyday commute to work. You don’t need to remember every conversation you ever had. Forgetting these things helps to prioritize other memories. And to people working in AI, this ability of the brain to forget things is something that makes the human brain superior to artificial ones.
Malcolm Gladwell, the host of Revisionist History refers to humans as “memory fundamentalist”, we are reliant on our memories, almost militantly so. Even when faced with piles of evidence that prove that our memories are unreliable. A better way to approach this information is understanding that our brain works in a particular way to help us remember and prioritize important things, but not everything.
While our brains are not computers, this shouldn’t be a point of concern. Everyone has varying degrees of holding memories, and that’s okay too. We are lucky enough to have tools to help us compensate for our memories when we want to be able to work with more information than we can hold in an active state in our minds.
Employing capturing devices, such as Luffa, enables us to put our trust into tools that aren’t going to succumb to the distorting properties of time, nor the emotionally charged relationship with our own memories that is an inherent part of being human. Audio captures of conversations, snap-shots of sketches and wireframes, all kept in one place so your human brain doesn’t have too. If an artificial brain is better at the details while your human brain is better at emotional and intuitive memories, using these in conjunction will have you mastering knowledge reuse and innovation.