THEORY: Bjork files – How I learned to love forgetting

How I learned to love forgetting?



New Theory of Disuse

I’ve heard people say they only have enough room in their head for ‘x’ number of facts or they will loose what they already know. There is a common perception that we have finite storage and what we don’t use will decay and ‘fall out of our head’, that we build our memories in a somewhat linear fashion and that repeated learning and recall keeps these memories to the forefront. What if I was to tell you that forgetting would help your memory.

In this video on New Theory of Disuse by Bjork he presents a few interesting concepts:

  1. We have unlimited storage capacity
  2. Learning in different environments improves recall, and especially if the same material is presented to us in different contexts.
  3. Forgetting helps your memory, Bjork talks about two indices of memory strength: Storage Strength (SS – how well something is learned) and Retrieval Strength (RS – how accessible something is). The examples below show why forgetting actually helps you SS and RS.

Bjork gives four examples:

“If something is well learned (e.g. the address where you have lived for several years), it has both high SS and high RS: You know it well and can retrieve it readily. The address of a friend that you visited for the first time this afternoon, however, may only have high RS (and low SS) because the address, although practiced recently, was not well learned. Thus, although you know the address now, you will be unlikely to be able to recall it in a few days because RS will decrease over time, especially for information with low SS. Sometimes information has high SS (due to it having been well learned), but cannot be retrieved (e.g., the address where you lived as a child). If you were provided with this address again, however, you would have the feeling that that information was somewhere in the recesses of your memory, and in fact, you would be likely to relearn it very quickly. Finally, information can have both low RS and low SS. This information would include things that you heard in class earlier today, but did not learn well and cannot recall now.”

The New Theory of Disuse describes interesting ways in which RS and SS interact. With the above example of a childhood address where SS was high and RS was low consequent restudy gives a huge boost to RS. Whereas the opposite is true where SS is small and you keep restudying a topic so the RS is high. A prime example would be rote learning a list of facts, simply repeating to-be-learned information over and over again is not very helpful. You need to form deeper connections to improve long-term retention.

So learn to love forgetting.

Robert Bjork:

“Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess.”


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