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Background: In the last few days, I came across an experience that made me wonder how our brain manages "memory resources".

As time progresses further from an experience I've had in my life, I realize that I have begun to forgot details that are important and supposed to be "kept", not lost since I was able to recall them in the first days following the event.

I remember what happened, who was present, and why it happened, but I'm beginning to lose track of "when" the event happened.

This may be a filtering process or a defense mechanism, but in any case, I'm not focusing on the reason behind that, rather I'm interested in avoiding such "holes" in memory in the future.

In a generalized way, given the facts that we can obtain by answering the questions "what", "why", "who" and "when", which of these are the first facts to be forgotten?

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2 Answers 2

I was taught that recall and forgetting are somewhat worse for episodic memories as compared to semantic memories. I'm having trouble finding a supportive reference now, but that may be due to how basic the concept is (or it may just be wrong). The example I recall was the difference between remembering how to ride a bike vs. remembering the experience of learning to ride a bike – one expects more people to remember how to ride a bike than to remember learning how. This isn't the cleanest example of two different kinds of memories, because knowing how to ride a bike is also more likely an implicit, procedural memory.

In any case, forgetting "when" seems likely if this entails the circumstantial aspects of the event. If it's not especially important that the event in memory happened at a particular time or in a particular situation, those elements of the episodic memory could be forgotten quite readily. I don't think "when" information is categorically forgettable though, as I can imagine some memories being tied very closely to that info – e.g., memories about parties on holidays or birthdays.

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There have been several studies of memory and memory loss(forgetting) related to 9/11. One article based on these studies says:

They believed that their 9/11 memories were much more accurate than their regular memories. One finding especially popped out for Rubin: People had already changed their stories of how they heard about the attacks over just a few days, from the day after the event to one week later. "Because at that point you've told 35 people how you heard about it, and it's been solidified in your memory the way you're telling it, not necessarily how it really happened," he explains.

And it isn't that people just make errors of omission and forget details, notes Talarico. "They make errors of commission as well, changing a red shirt to a blue one, or saying they were with different people from those they first said they were with."

[...]

It turned out that the rate of forgetting for both types of memory slowed and stabilized after a year. But overall flashbulb recollections declined more than factual recollections, possibly because nonstop media coverage bolstered people's factual memories (see sidebar).

"What we're really looking at in flashbulb studies is consistency of people's stories, and we found a dramatic inconsistency in what people report after one week and after 36 months," Hirst says of the results, which were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 138, No. 2). "People are changing who they were with, how they found out about the attacks, those sorts of aspects."

Forty percent of the time people misremember some aspect of their 9/11 experience, the study indicates. And the part they get the most wrong is how they felt.

"You tend to project your current feelings about 9/11 on what you felt then," explains Hirst. "You see this in other aspects of daily life. For instance, if we ask college students how they feel about a boyfriend or girlfriend now, everything's good. But if you ask them about the person after they break up, they'll say they knew he or she was bad for them. Our emotions change over time, and it's hard to get back in that initial emotional space."

References

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