Memory Failures: Transience, Absentmindedness, & Blocking

In this video I introduce 3 common memory failures from Daniel Schacter’s list of the “seven sins” of memory. Transience refers to forgetting due to the passage of time and follows a “forgetting curve” researched by Hermann Ebbinghaus. Absentmindedness refers to a failure to bring a memory to mind at the appropriate time. This relates to the idea of prospective memory, or memory for the future, which involves planning for potential lapses. Blocking refers to a temporary inability to access a memory, which often results in a “tip of the tongue” experience.

Oops, left the additional “n” off of Hermann Ebbinghaus on the screencast!

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video and the next video, we’re going to look at a series of memory failures and these are often referred to as the seven sins of memory by researcher Daniel Schacter.

Now you might not be familiar with the names of all of these memory failures at the moment but chances are you’ve already experienced all of these failures at some point. So we’ll start with a basic failure that you’ve certainly experienced and this is the idea that you forget things over time.

This is referred to as transience. This is a failure to retrieve a memory simply due to the passage of time. So we can say it’s a retrieval failure. You encode the memory correctly and you store it but over some period of time it fades away so we have a retrieval failure due to time.

One of the first researchers to look into this in a systematic way was a guy named Hermann Ebbinghaus, he was a German researcher and we’ll talk about him more in a future video but one of the things that Ebbinghaus did is he measured his ability to recall things over time and he created what he called a forgetting curve.

You’ve probably seen this before, the idea of the forgetting curve is that over time, the amount we can remember of the information that we studied or learned sort of fades very quickly and then it sort of flattens out like this. You know within about an hour after sitting through a lecture you’ve forgotten most of the lecture. You might still remember a little bit, and overtime you remember a little bit less and a little bit less.

The important lesson from the forgetting curve is that each time you review that information, so if you were to re-study that information, you sort of bring the curve back up and it starts falling over time and then hopefully you study again and then it starts falling and you study again and you study again and what you can do over time is sort of flatten it out where you actually are able to maintain a lot of that memory over time.

So as you can see the best way to do that is to review information repeatedly. Cramming for one night, within a few hours, you’ve probably forgotten most of that. Whereas if you spread out that review over time then you have a better chance of remembering more of it. That’s something we’ll talk about in a future video when I talk about some memory tips to improve your ability to remember things. Ok, so this is the idea of transience.

The next error that we’ll look at is absentmindedness. You’ve certainly experienced this before, for instance if you’ve ever left an umbrella inside a taxi or or in a restaurant or something. Usually what happens is you forget the object and then you remember later. So it’s not really that the memory is gone. It’s not so much a failure that you’ve lost the memory it’s a failure that you didn’t remember the memory at the right time. You didn’t bring it to mind at the appropriate time and in this way we can think of absentmindedness as really being a failure of attention rather than a memory failure.

So you have the memory, you remember that you brought your phone with you, say, and you set it down and then as you’re leaving you don’t remember to bring to mind that your phone is not with you or it’s not in your bag or something and so later when you’re already home you suddenly remember “oh I left my phone at my friend’s house” or something. So you can think of it as an attention failure. It’s a failure to direct your attention to the memory at the appropriate time.

Now this brings us to a strategy for reducing absent-mindedness. This refers to something called prospective memory. Prospective refers to the future so the idea of prospective memory is really memory for the future, which is kind of a weird idea, right? Remembering things that haven’t happened yet. So this is your future memory. So what do I mean by that? Well let’s say you have something that you have to bring with you tomorrow. You have a meeting or you have to bring something to class, a project that you’ve been working on, and it’s really important that you bring this with you tomorrow morning when you leave.

Now if you use your prospective memory you might realize “hey you know what this is the type of thing I might forget in the morning. I might wake up late I’m in a rush, and I might end up leaving the project at home and that would be terrible”. So what you do is you plan for your future ability to remember it and the way that you might do that is, let’s say it’s a bag you have to bring with you, before you go to bed that night, you might put the bag in front of the front door.

Now this will ensure that your attention gets directed to the memory as you’re leaving. So it will make it pretty much impossible for you to forget it, right? Because you’ve taken care of this attention failure, you’ve planned for the future and created a way to remind your memory that “okay this is the thing I need to bring with me today”.

So that’s something you can keep mind if you have a problem where you are continually absent minded and you’re leaving things in places and forgetting to bring things with you, you can try to use your prospective memory and plan for future memory failures that haven’t happened yet but are foreseeable to happen.

Ok, so that’s absent mindedness and the last one that we’ll look at in this video and then the next video we’ll continue, is called blocking. Blocking refers to the idea that we have a memory, we’ve encoded it properly, we’ve stored it over time, we’re just not able to retrieve it at the moment. It’s a temporary inability to retrieve a memory.

You’ve probably experienced this and the most common way that this blocking occurs in is in what’s called the tip of the tongue phenomenon. This is the frustrating condition where you have the memory, you know you have the memory, and yet you can’t seem to access it when you want to. You’re like it’s right on the tip of your tongue as you say.

So what causes this to happen? Well generally this happens with memories that we have that we don’t access very frequently. We don’t retrieve them very often and so it might take a little effort to find how to sort of pull that memory out from our long-term memory. So it usually happens with infrequently accessed memories.

So for instance, if I wanted to trigger a tip of the tongue experience I would ask you a question that you probably know the answer to but you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time. So for instance, I might ask you about some sort of obscure words like if you have to think about a word for a person who makes maps. You probably know this word, probably haven’t thought of it in a while. Or the name for this rock, a volcanic rock with a hard glassy surface. So if you’re experiencing this tip of the tongue phenomenon it’s because you know these words, cartographer and obsidian, but when’s the last time you accessed that memory? It’s probably been a while. It’s an infrequently accessed memory, this was more likely to cause this.

Now it can also happen for other things, it’s not just for words. This could happen when you see a former classmate that you haven’t seen in 10 years or longer and you recognize their face, you know that you know the person, you know that their name is somewhere in your memory, you can’t seem to access it right at this moment. This can lead to an embarrassing social situation but hopefully this doesn’t happen too frequently to you.

Ok, so in the next video we’ll look at some other memory failures but for now these are our first three; transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking. I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!