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6 Reasons Why You Forget What You Read



You need to always remind yourself that you have a really capable brain, and it’s the truth. Intelligence or a “good” memory is not something that is fixed. You don’t forget what you read because your brain is incapable of taking in the information you give to it. The brain works mostly similarly for most of us.

Interestingly, sometimes, we forget because we need to. When it comes to everyday experiences, we really do not want to store every information our brain takes in for the long-term. Some information will eventually turn out to be useless. As a matter of fact, the broadest reason we forget is that in our everyday lives, we focus on understanding the world, not remembering it. Sometimes, we also forget to deal with the pains and traumas in life, such as the loss of a loved one.

In other words, memory is designed to be selective and there are benefits to be gained by forgetting outdated information. Our brains are constantly undergoing an upgrade, as we go through life and gather some new experiences. 

Reasons Why You Forget What You Read

While the reasons I’ve mentioned above are some useful reasons why we do forget, the six reasons I want to share in this article are for the student who finds reading mostly unproductive. Knowing why you forget what you read can help you better commit things to memory.

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1. Inadequate attention to what you wish to remember

The first cause of forgetfulness is lack of proper attention to what we wish to remember. The result is that the experience does not make a strong enough impression on us.

We forget because we do not pay sufficient attention to what we want to remember in order to imprint it firmly on our mind. A good memory therefore depends upon attention to what is to be remembered. Since one cannot effectively attend to more than one thing at a time, give your full attention to what you wish to remember.

2. Lack of revision or rehearsal

It is normal to forget most of what is learned within a few days after learning it unless it is constantly revised to keep it fresh in mind. As I earlier stated, your brain constantly reorganizes information, as new experiences come. As a result, experiences that are hardly revisited or concepts that are very rarely used or relearned, gradually fade off.

Much of what we read is forgotten almost as soon as we have learnt it. The little that remains after that is forgotten more gradually. The forgetting curve hypothesizes the decline of memory retention in time. This curve shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it.

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A typical representation of the forgetting curve. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Spending time each day to remember information, such as that for exams, will greatly decrease the effects of the forgetting curve. Some learning consultants claim reviewing material in the first 24 hours after learning information is the optimum time to re-read notes and reduce the amount of knowledge forgotten. Evidence suggests waiting 10-20% of the time towards when the information will be needed is the optimum time for a single review.

3. Interference of other activities during or just after study time

Research has shown that other activities we pursue after learning something interfere with our ability to retain and remember it later. In other words, we forget something we’ve learnt because we learnt other things subsequently. 

How much you will forget actually depends on how similar the interfering activity is with what is being learnt. Interference is most helpful when the interfering materials or activities are very similar to the material being read.

Another way interference occurs is when what has happened previously interferes with what is happening now. Work which precedes learning also tends to interfere with the retention of the learned material. What happened before our study time could cause us to forget what we’ve read as well as what happened afterwards.

Some memories remain free from the detrimental effects of interference. These memories don’t necessarily follow the typical forgetting curve as various consolidating factors influence how much information is remembered. For example, it easier to forget what your lecturer said in that “seemly unending” class than it is to forget your first trip to Dubai.

4. Repression of what is being learnt for some reasons

Repression is the act of controlling strong emotions and desires and not allowing them to be expressed so that they no longer seem to exist. I have already given an example of this at the beginning of this article related to forgetting memories that cause us pain

In the context of forgetting what we’ve read, repression occurs when we prevent ourselves from becoming aware of some tendency active in our mind which opposes the desire to recall by a strong resistance or wish not to recall.

Oftentimes, we more easily forget a memory which conflicts with our comfort or self esteem than one which does not. This is why what is repressed may not be unpleasant in itself but may have been associated with something else which is unpleasant. If you are confident that you have mastered a concept in say, physics, repression caused by illusions of competence could prevent you from committing that concept to memory better. 

5. Unhealthy Nutrition or Diet

It has been discovered that the kind of food we eat does affect our brains. Research has already proven that people suffer physically and mentally because of two things: the food they eat and the food they refuse to eat. 

Eating foods such as highly seasoned dishes, much meat, salt and stale food affect our brains. Certain items like cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine also negatively affect our brain when consumed excessively. Some foods and items are part of a bad nutritional diet because they hamper the blood and energy circulation in the body and mind.

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Many students can relate to this girl in this image. Neglecting sleep almost always does more harm than good when it comes to learning. Photo Credit: AAT Comment

6. Lack of good rest and adequate sleep

For most students, one of the most neglected areas of their lives is sleep. Are you so busy studying or working that you are not getting all the sleep that your body needs? Most adults need about 7 to 8 consecutive hours of sleep each night; children and adolescents need quite a bit more. If you aren’t getting enough quality sleep, your memory is one of the first parts to suffer. I have written another article that talks about how sleep greatly influences how you learn and remember.

You need sleep to create important memory links and connections. When you first learn something, that information is fragile; the imprint on your brain is very delicate. When you sleep, your brain reviews that information and forges stronger pathways so it becomes a more solid part of your knowledge base. In other words, if you don’t get enough sleep, you will have memory trouble. If you have been sleep deprived, then getting enough sleep is one of the easiest and fastest ways to improve your memory.

In conclusion, the human memory is a complex, brain-wide process that is really essential to who we are. The more you know about your memory, the better you’ll understand how you can improve it.


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