Why Do We Forget and How Mnemonics Can Help You Alleviate This Problem

Why Do We Forget and How Mnemonics Can Help You Alleviate This Problem

We’ve all been there. Sitting at the party and calling everyone “hey dude” because you can’t recall their names. It was there just a moment ago but obviously, your brain deemed that remembering lyrics of some silly song might be more useful.

Well, sc*ew you brain!

So why do we forget? And why should you care? Firstly, it’s fascinating but if it’s not enough for you I want to appeal to your practical side. Understanding why we forget might actually help you remember more effectively.

What’s more, I’m going to show you that using mnemonics can actually solve all your problems with memory! Let’s take a look at some common reasons behind forgetting, as identified by Elizabeth Loftus.

1. Failure to Store


I’d argue that this is the most important reason for not remembering. You can’t recall something that you haven’t actually committed to memory!

Day in, day out we are flooded with thousands of pieces of information from various sources. Brain largely ignores them since they are not important for your well-being. So what actually stands a chance of being remembered?

The information which you

  • a) pay attention to
  • b) encode (well)

Take your watch as an example (or a jacket). How well can you describe it without looking at it? Usually, the results are lousy. Sure, you remember the general shape and maybe a couple of details. But that’s it. And there is a good reason for that. You didn’t pay attention. You don’t need this info to enjoy your watch or jacket after all.

What about encoding?

Let’s take a look at the following medical term: medial epicondylitis. The mere staring at this term won’t magically transfer this knowledge into your long-term memory.

What about repeating it over and over again? Well, it’s as effective as putting your shoes on your hands when you’re cold but why not?

So how can you encode this term well?

You might have noticed that the word “medial” consists of “me” and “dial”. “Con” in Spanish means “with”. What’s more, you pronounce “dylit” like “delight”.

I can imagine myself saying “me dial” a number. If I want to do anything epic con delight in my life I might need this hand. Not bad, right? But we can also step it up and imagine the pain and the location where the said call takes place.

And that’s actually how mnemonics work! You dissect a word, create a story and place it in some location.

2. Interference


This theory says that information in long-term memory may become confused or combined with other information during encoding thus warping or disrupting memories.

It seems that forgetting happens because memories interfere with and disrupt one another (Baddeley, 1999) There are two ways in which interference can cause forgetting:

  • Proactive interference is when an old memory makes it more difficult or impossible to remember a new memory.
  • Retroactive interference occurs when new information interferes with your ability to remember previously learned information.

That’s why it is really difficult to learn two languages which are similar. The brain quickly becomes confused and start mixing everything up. A good piece of advice is to space learning of similar information over a longer period of time.

Mnemonics come in very handy again. When you precisely encode information, the possibility of interference occurrence is greatly decreased.

3. Retrieval Failure


There are many theories which explain why we are often unable to access information. One of the most popular is the decay theory. The theory has it that a memory trace is created every time a new memory is formed.

With the passing of time, these memory traces begin to fade and disappear. If the information is not retrieved and rehearsed, it will eventually be lost. Of course, the greater the interval time between the time when the event from happening and the time when we try to remember, the bigger a chance of memory being lost.

It’s worth remembering that some memories are context or state dependent. They are hard to access when there are no appropriate retrieval cues


The simplest solution to this problem is simply consolidation. When we learn new information, a certain amount of time is necessary for changes in the nervous system to occur – the aforementioned consolidation process – so that it is properly absorbed. The information moves from short-term memory to the more permanent long-term memory (read more about how to improve your short-term memory).

Mnemonics can help with this problem as well. Storing information in certain locations makes it easy to access regardless of retrieval cues. But you still have to remember about consolidation. There is no shortcut here.

4. Your health and emotional state


I guess it’s stating the obvious but when you’re stressed, tired or in a bad shape, your retrieval and processing capabilities (and retention) gets worse. Usually, it goes together with worsened concentration.

The remedy is quite easy here. Get a good night sleep, eat well and don’t get stressed too much.
Gee, if only life was that easy.

Do you have any stories of how your memory back-stabbed you when you needed it the most? Let me know!



  • Thank you for your post!

    Forgetting is such a common human frailty that I no longer expect to remember much! I have to say, though, I haven’t tried the method of mnemonics but so far I don’t completely agree with it. I find it easier to retain a word when it is not tangled with other information in my head. Things do stick when you connect them. But I think it is not the connection that makes them stick but the moment of realization you had when you first saw the connection is what makes them stick.

    That’s my opinion

    • For me the problem is that with big number of info you can’t recall all the connections you’ve made. That’s why I’m a proponent of mnemonics 🙂

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