Why do most of us forget a book we read or a movie we watched?

According to a new research, the way we absorb information shapes how we use our memory. And the internet era is continuously reshaping “the forgetting curve”.

The memories of Pamela Paul regarding books are less about the words themselves and more about the experience. “Mostly, I remember where and what book I was reading. I remember the object” says Paul, the editor of the The New York Times Book Review and someone we can easily define as a prolific reader. “ I remember the edition; I remember the front cover; usually, I remember where I bought the book or if I got it as a gift from someone. What I don’t recall – and this is terrible! – is everything else.”.

Paul told me, for example, of having finished reading the biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson. “While I read the book, besides learning everything that there is to know about Ben Franklin, I also learned about the chronology of the American Revolution”, she said. “Now, two days later, I probably wouldn’t be able to summarise the chronology of the American Revolution anymore”.

Certainly, there are people who can read a book or watch a movie once and retain the plot perfectly. However, for many people, the experience of absorbing culture is like filling up a bath tub, get in the water and slowly watch the water go down the drain. There may be a little bit of water left in the tub, but most of it is gone.

“Generally speaking, the memory has an intrinsic limitation”, says Faria Sana, assistant-professor of Psychology at the University of Athabasca, Canada. “It is essentially a bottle neck”. The “forgetting curve”, the name of this phenomenon, is more acute during the first 24 hours after a person has learned a new information. The percentage of exactly how much a person forgets varies but, unless the person reviews the material or the source of that information (e.g. the book or the movie), most of that information is lost after the first day. The loss of information increases as days go by, and only a fraction of that information is retained in the brain.

It is believed that our memory has always worked this way. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Jared Horvath, a researcher from the University of Melbourne, Australia, the way people absorb new information has changed in the “internet era”.  We now tend to use less of our “declarative memory” (or explicit memory) – the ability to spontaneously access information which is saved in our memory – since we can easily look up any information on the internet. Researches show that the internet works as an “external memory” which people can access basically any time. And they don’t have to recall a quote from a book, for example, or a line from a movie anymore, because they can look those up on the internet. When videotapes were created, it became easy for anyone to watch a movie or a TV show. We no longer have that feeling that, if we don’t memorise certain information in our brain, we will lose it. And now with streaming and Wikipeadea, the internet has reduced even more our memory threshold for cultural knowledge.

However, this does not mean that we used to memorise more and better. In one of Plato’s famous works (he was famous for blaming the written language for the loss of memory in his apprentices) he mentions a dialogue between Socrates and the aristocrat Fedro, when Socrates talks about the god Thoth, the “founder of the written language”. The Egyptian king Tamo says to Thoth: “Your discovery will create forgetfulness in the apprentices’ souls, because they no longer will use their memories to recall what they are taught; they will only trust the written characters and will not memorise anything anymore”.

(Interestingly, Plato’s words can only now be remembered thanks to written characters!)

Perhaps the internet offers a similar deal: the user can access and absorb all the information and entertainment that they desire, but they will not retain most part of that information. It is true that people accumulate in their memories a lot more than what they are able to retain. Last year, Horvath and colleagues from the University of Melbourne detected that people who binge-watch TV series tend to forget what they’ve watched a lot more quickly than those who watch one episode of the same show per week. Not long after the end of an episode, the group of people who binge-watched a TV show presented the best memory results. However, 140 days after having watched all those episodes, the same group reported the lowest memory scores than those who had watched one episode a week. The binge-watchers also seemed to enjoy the TV show a lot less than those who watched one episode weekly.

People also seem to be reading a lot more. In 2009, the average American was exposed to 100 thousand words a day (although, s/he did not necessarily read all those words). It si difficult to imagine that this number has dropped nine years from then. In “Binge-Reading Disorder”, an article written by Nikkitha Bakshani and published in The Morning News, analyses the meaning of that 2009 statistics. “Reading has a nuance” she says, “ but the most popular type of reading is probably for sheer consumption – we read, especially off the internet, so we can obtain an information which will most definitively never become knowledge”.

In other words, the way we absorb information nowadays is mostly “for show”. We do not wish to learn anything. Instead, we want to have the brief experience of learning something without having to actually save that information for future use”.  The research about binge-reading shows that if someone wants to memorise what they’ve read or watched, they need to have a break between events. I used to get upset at school during my language course, which required us to read only three chapters of a book per week. But there was a reason for it. “Memory becomes stronger if the person is forced to constantly claim it” says Horvath. If someone reads an entire book at once – on a lane, for example – the plot will be stored in the reader’s memory. “The reader will never have to access it again” says Horvath.

Sana says that it’s common when we read that we have this fake “fluency sensation”.   The information flows into the brain, the reader is understanding the information, and it feels like the information is being stored in a special drawer inside our mental library. “In reality, the information will not stay in our memory unless we force ourselves to recall it, or train our brains to help us remember”.

Perhaps people are like that when they are studying or Reading something for work, but it is very unlikely that, during their leisure times, they take notes about “Gilmore Girls” for a test.

“You may be watching and listening, but you may be not seeing or hearing anything”, says Sana. “And I think it is exactly this way that we are most of the time.” Nonetheless, not all memories that are stored are necessarily lost. Some of them may be apparently inaccessible in our memories until something happens that triggers their outflow. Our memory is essentially “associative”, says Sana.

If you absorb culture in hopes of building your mental library to which you can go back to anytime you want, it’s very likely that you will be disappointed at yourself. Books, shows, movies and songs are not files that you can upload to your brain. They are part of the life quilt cover that is life. Stitched together, that’s all.

“It would be wonderful if we could clean our memory – one information goes in and another goes out; consequently, we would get the memory of a specific fact. However, this is not what our memory is like. Our memory is the combination of everything together”, says Horvath.

This article is based on a publication by Julie Beck, senior editor of The Atlantic magazine.

 

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