Ben Storm studies memory, so it’s fortunate that he’s pretty quick to learn the names of students in his psychology classes each quarter. But it turns out he’s also good at forgetting.According to Storm, our ability to remember is closely linked to our ability to forget.
“Our memory system is designed to make things inaccessible,” said Storm. “It’s adaptive, not a failure.”
That message—likely welcome news for many—is just one of many insights about memory shared by Storm, an associate professor of psychology who is fascinated by how memory supports thinking, learning, and creativity.
As a graduate student at UCLA, Storm was drawn to what psychologists call “retrieval-induced forgetting.” The vast majority of memory research is based on experiments that test a participant’s ability to “study and retrieve” a list of words. Basically, Storm explained, subjects are given a list of words to remember, then asked to recall them. The act of retrieving some words actually makes people forget the others. This phenomenon—”retrieval-induced forgetting”—was identified well before researchers understood the mechanism that causes it.
“Forgetting is part of learning and remembering,” said Storm. “Our memory system pushes away some things in an attempt to remember other things. The system is designed to prevent what we call ‘non-target information’ from interfering with the retrieval of target information.”
Which also explains why, when you’re trying hard to remember to pick up milk and eggs at the grocery store, you forget to buy bread.
It’s not that our memories are finite, like a computer hard drive that reaches capacity and can’t accommodate any more data. “Storage strength is effectively infinite. It’s retrieval that’s difficult,” said Storm. “Retrieval is severely limited—which is why forgetting helps.”
Memory is fabulous—and fallible
Storm is interested in how context influences memory—psychological and social processes that affect recall. “Once you learn …