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Why do we forget, and how do we improve our memory?

By Memrise Blog

Sometimes we forget because we didn’t form much of a memory in the first place.

For instance, if you think you’re bad at remembering people’s names, it could just be that there’s so much going on at the moment when you first meet them that you simply weren’t paying enough attention when they introduced themselves.

See Ed Cooke’s piece on remembering where you left your keys – he does a great job of showing how to pay closer attention and form stronger, more vivid and differentiable memories.

Sometimes we forget because we cannot produce a strongly-related cue for the memory we wish to recall.

The brain is amazing at allowing us to use almost any aspect of a memory as a cue for accessing it. For instance, you can try and recall a word by thinking of its first few letters, or what it rhymes with, or a mnemonic, or an example of its usage, or its etymological roots, or by thinking back to where you were when you first learned it, or or or …

The better the cue, the better your memory works. If you’re stuck trying to recall something, maybe you’re not using the right cue. Try adding more richness and detail to your cue, like using a crowbar to pry open a stuck door.

Or maybe there’s another interfering memory in the way (see below) – take a different route altogether, and use a different cue altogether. Finally, try and think back to the context you were in when you first learned it – this is one of the best ways to take a running jump at retrieving a memory.

Sometimes we forget because memories interfere with one another when we’re trying to retrieve them.

Our brain works by storing similar memories so they overlap a lot. This makes it easy for us to easily jump from one similar memory to another, and eventually notice useful patterns and generalizations [1].

But this overlapping storage comes at a price – sometimes you’re looking for one memory, but your access to it is blocked by an overlapping, interfering, neighbour memory. This is one of the principle causes of forgetting.

And sometimes we forget because individual memories have degraded or grown weaker.

Memories degrade all the time [2]. It’s because they overlap – if you change one memory, that change could affect all the memories that overlap with it.

Memories need to be occasionally reminded and remembered – the longer you’ve known something, the deeper its roots, but all memories need reactivating every so often to stay strong.

Besides this, neurons die, and the chemistry and connectivity of our brains changes slowly over time. Brains aren’t like hard disks – they’re pretty robust to this kind of thing, but if enough of the physical hardware changes, you’ll eventually notice.

Fortunately, our brain has amazing memory repair mechanisms during sleep that reorganize and refresh old memories – our dreams!

How do I improve my memory?

So, yes, memories fade and degrade unavoidably. But that’s really not the primary cause of forgetting.

Here’s what you can do to remember better.

Learn to form more vivid, differentiable memories in the first place. Try and generate better, richer and more various cues when you’re trying to remember. (It often helps to think back to where you were when you first learned things.) Occasionally reactivate old memories – recalling them is the best way to cement them.

Things are changing

Grandmaster of Memory can memorize ten decks of cards in half an hour, even though their neural hardware is exactly the same as everyone else’s (we know this from scanning their brains). They have trained extensively in techniques to form more vivid, differentiable memories, to minimize overlap between memories, to cue them flexibly and efficiently.

It took Isaac Newton years and years to invent calculus in the 17th century – but we now teach calculus in high school.

Our goal at Memrise is for every one of us to learn and remember more effectively and more happily in the future than any Grandmaster of Memory alive today.


By improving on the techniques today’s Grandmasters of Memory use. By introducing the latest insights from the psychology and neuroscience of memory and forgetting. By optimizing algorithms that adapt to our individual progress. By sharing mems with one another that make for unbelievably vivid, differentiable memories. And by making the whole business as much fun as humanly possible!

[1] There are actually multiple memory systems – some of them store memories pretty separately so they’re less confusable, while others store them in a very overlapping way to help us generalize across them.

[2] There’s an active debate in the scientific community about how to think about memory weakening/degradation, and I’m simplifying here.

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