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choppersangel's avatar

How come humans are so forgetful?

Asked by choppersangel (707points) October 7th, 2010

Here we are, intelligent, artful, inquisitive and adaptive. So, with all our clever brain and our progressive adaptation, how come it is necessary to keep digging up our past, labelling it, trying to interpret it and find it’s meaning – what have we done with all our learning?

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22 Answers

phoebusg's avatar

Because otherwise we wouldn’t remember when and where we found fruit (evol. behavior). What we did with that learning is adapt in new environments, learn – and remember how to get food – procreate – survive.

As far as memory, it doesn’t work as most think. it is a confabulation – a recollection process. Every time you ‘remember’ something, you’re querying many different brain regions. Collating the information. While being influenced by current moods and information ‘present’ in your working memory – confabulating it in the answer – that which you identify as the memory..

Why does this happen? My guess: efficiency. All memory is stored in a branched neuron system, using parts of other neurons as bits and developing out of them. As such, it improves space-efficiency by far. Having a computer memory would make our heads/skulls explode, or we’d run out of ‘memory’ very fast – just like computers do.
The best example of this – is considering how high level object oriented programming works, you don’t reinvent the wheel. To write a new program you use all the available methods first, extending only where and as needed. What you end up with is very efficient code. In brain terms- what you end up with is a very efficient neural branch or network – that doesn’t need as much space, or food to operate.

An additional explanation – food, energy. Biologically we never had it so good as the ‘modern era’. The brain is designed to be energy efficient, only focusing on high tasks when they’re needed (learning) – and quickly optimizing things into a practical neural network (application). The first is top/front side of the brain, the latter back/lower.

Each day, we throw bits out, and optimize memory storage.

mrentropy's avatar

There’s too much crap on our minds. Shoves out the good stuff.

ucme's avatar

I had a really smart answer for this…......but for the life of me I can’t remember what the hell it was!!

ETpro's avatar

Drat! I used to know the answer to that one.

tranquilsea's avatar

Forgetting allows us to concentrate on today. People who remember everything are quite crippled by it.

LuckyGuy's avatar

One hour of Maury Povich and we even forget we’re human.

JustmeAman's avatar

I was in earlier but forgot to respond. So I think that

Your_Majesty's avatar

There are limits about our memory capacity. Each persons own different kind of capacity and vitality of ‘brain power’.

GeorgeGee's avatar

How odd that your question asks why we are so forgetful, yet the details of your question about “digging up our past” suggest that we remember TOO much.

NaturallyMe's avatar

I also think that we have so many things to think about that we are probably bound to forget some things that are maybe not that important to us at any given time. As to why our brains haven’t developed to cope better with all this info, who knows? It probably has but we don’t know how to use our equipment properly.

choppersangel's avatar

When I mentioned ‘digging’ I meant it literally, archaeologically and all that. There are many television programmes (here in the UK) that relate to history, archaeology and genealogy. It seems such a shame that in our modern society there is so little memory of even recent past – say the last 100 years or so.
I’m interested to know whether this is an evolutionary advantage in forgetting, whether our interwebby world is actually an advance; how re-interpreting the past is any use, why there is so much guesswork about what people used to do…
Why my brain hurts.

tranquilsea's avatar

Only certain things were written down in our not to recent past and literacy was limited. Add to that the endless skirmishes and wars we seem to get into. A favourite past time of conquering armies is the burning of libraries. One can start to understand why so much has been forgotten.

Zyx's avatar

Because time is very similar to space and a long time ago equals very far away. Trying to remember something a lifetime ago is like trying to see around a corner.

We leave things behind for the future but live for today so why should archeological findings represent ancient societies? You shouldn’t think people “think” anything about the past because everyone’s opinions differ.

Ron_C's avatar

The irony is that humans write books and store data because they know memory is fallible. Yet they ignore history and sometimes even common sense to repeatedly make the same mistakes.

Some humans learn from their and others mistakes, the majority doesn’t. You can cure ignorance but stupidity is permanent.

Zyx's avatar

@Ron_C I agree, our intelligence pales in comparison to our knowledge.

Jabe73's avatar

Except when it comes to money.

Ame_Evil's avatar

Tbh I am amazed that we ever remember anything at all, what with having to convert what is in the outside world into a neural representation that can be stored over time without being damaged.

Seriously though, if you think of the steps involved in order to keep a memory in terms of neurobiology you would be amazed too when you have to factor in encoding and cell death/regeneration. At least you can see why artifacts in memory happen as described by Bartlett; because our memory is actually limited.

Think of it as redrawing a picture from real life using only the tools of an art program (eg Paint). You only have a limited range of tools available which can be used to encapsulate the reality of the picture. Of course you expect errors to appear when trying to match up, and depending on your tools some aspects may be overlooked, simplified etc etc. For example, if you want to draw smoke you can use the spraycan tool which may reproduce the idea of smoke, but fail to replicate it entirely.

This brings me to my next point: memory also works based on other principles such as importance. Important things tend to be remembered better than non important because of how limited memory is at storing things. This has been shown in countless studies and has been shown to produce countless biases (attentional blindness in the gorilla experiment, focusing on emotional stimuli such as weapons).

And finally we also find that previous memories affect later ones in a similar manner, which biases our memories. This is because we have schemas of our world around us which help us store and retrieve memories. When the outside reality is incompatible, this often resorts in errors such as false memories or omissions of important things, hence forgetting.

I hope that answered your question, despite taking a different (and weird) route to answering it.

ETpro's avatar

@Jabe73 Great point. Who ever forgets a debt owed them?

Ame_Evil's avatar

@Etpro my housemate does quite a lot of the time

bigjay's avatar

Hi. The title question and your explanation seem like two different things. Why are humans forgetful? The way our brains and nervous systems work is to promote those things you mentioned – however when it comes to information storage and pure processing, well we don’t even begin to compare with computers because that is what their ‘nervous systems’ [so to speak] are built for. To top this off, humans have a hierarchy of needs that can very much cloud their immediate memory – if a man has a giant chunk of his face blown off, i very much doubt he will remember his other engagements. At the same time, if someone is owed money and it is a particularly large amount, well he could be turned inside out and he still won’t forget it.
In your explanation, you further elaborated on a different topic it seems. I don’t think self reflection and an innate need to find meaning in one’s life has much to do with memory power. And a ‘clever brain’ would be expected to contribute to ‘digging one’s past’ and ‘finding meaning’, not put it off, as you say.

mattbrowne's avatar

To remain sane. There are rare brain disorders when people are unable to forget almost anything. Imagine how it would be, if you remembered the exact circumstances of every time you had to pee since you were 4 years old. Not really useful. We can only focus on important stuff when less important stuff doesn’t get in the way.

Ron_C's avatar

@mattbrowne just imagine being able to remember your most embarrassing incidents in exact detail. Do you think that we can actually die from shame?

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