Your Forgetting Machine

Images of brains showing neurodiversity

Your Forgetting Machine

I recently read The Forgetting Machine by Rodrigo Quian Quiroga a neuroscientist at the University of Leicester in the UK. This is the latest in a few books I’ve read that focus on how the brain works and particularly how it learns. This is a fascinating topic for anyone involved in teaching or learning and although we are still only scratching the surface there are some key messages for those, like me, who are involved in designing effective learning experiences.

I advise all L&D people, instructional designers , teachers and trainers to read this book. It’s short and is written with the beginner in mind. To whet your appetite here are a few key insights from the book.

Our brains are optimised to forget stuff (not remember stuff)
This insight lends the book it’s catchy title and it’s a concept that I’ve come across in a few of the cognitive neuroscience books I’ve read. In particular Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’. Surprisingly our brains don’t actually store much information at all. In computer terms it’s about 128 Mb over our entire lifetime. Memory is based on a construction of meaning, an interpretation of the outside world that relies on selecting a minimum of information and making abstractions (or forming patterns), while discarding a multitude of detail. These abstractions are called ‘schemas’, for example we have a schema for birds, a schema for bosses etc. More on schemas later.

How do we decide what to remember?
Ths short answer is that we don’t normally consciously decide to remember something (unless we are revising facts for an exam). When it comes to remembering we aren’t fully in control. You may remember a guy call Hermann Ebbinghaus (did that light up a schema?). Back in 1885 he tested how good his own memory was by rote learning non-sensical groups of three letters (RIW, HOQ etc.). Not surprisingly he discovered that he forgot the letters again pretty quickly but if he revisited certain groups they remained longer in his memory. This result has spawned a whole raft of tools in online learning that use the idea of spaced repetition, the idea that by revisiting information many times it will be better remembered. In neuroscience terms this is known as memory consolidation but there are much better ways to consolidate a memory that simply rote learning meaningless (to you) facts.

To explore what would happen if the information to be remembered was meaningful another researcher Frederic Bartlett had Cambridge University students read a Native American folk legend. He then asked the students to repeat the story. From his research he concluded that the recollections of the story tended to be short and simplified, and that each student modified it based on their personal interpretation. When he asked the students to repeat the story several weeks and months later they tended to change the story each time adding new elements and forgetting things from previous re-tellings. More than the story itself the students remembered the ‘schema’ of the story – the essential meaning that they extracted from it. This makes perfect sense, it’s well known that people do learn from stories, what’s less well known is that they don’t always learn the same thing since each person constructs a unique set of schema and associated mental model.

Can we improve our memories?
Can use strategies (such as the method of loci or memory palace, or spaced repetition) to improve retention of facts? Yes we can, and these strategies can be useful when cramming for an exam. Ultimately though, unless we weave new information into one of our existing schema it will be of little value. That’s why most of us forget basic algebra. For a moment in time we could solve a quadratic equation, but in my case at least that moment has long gone! To learn we need to test our schema in the real world using a mental model, and that’s where practice is key. What matters is not how much we remember but how we remember and what meaning we take from the new information presented to us. That’s effectively what learning is – the extraction of meaning – and it’s clear that every person will extract a different meaning depending on their current understanding represented by their schemas and mental models.

How the brain represents concepts
Apparently our brains utilise a form of tagging system to help us make associations and connections and to generate concepts. One bit of research resulted in the discovery of the ‘Jennifer Aniston’ neuron – a neuron that only fired when an image of the Friends actor Jennifer Aniston was shown to a patient. If you don’t know who Jennifer Aniston is you won’t have that neuron but you will have neurons that fire when you see a certain image (like that of your Mum).

There is still much to learn about how our brains interpret and experience the world, but the flexibility with which our brains attribute meaning and how they select what information to process, store or discard is what defines human intelligence and what makes us different to any current form of AI. Embrace your ‘forgetting machine’ – it’s what makes you unique if somewhat fallible.


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