forgetting the books we read is normal: notes from the atlantic article

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Notes from Atlantic article about memory and forgetfulness.

…the experience of consuming culture is like filling up a bathtub, soaking in it, and then watching the water run down the drain. It might leave a film in the tub, but the rest is gone.

This is how I feel all the time, not only with books, but with some of my life experiences as well. Glad to read that I’m not the only one!

The “forgetting curve,” as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after, leaving you with a fraction of what you took in.

I’m delighted to learn that there is a scientific term to describe our tendency to forget, called the “forgetting curve.”

Note to self: consider saying “it appears that my forgetting curve is steep” instead of “I forgot.” On a second note, if I heard someone say that, I would so, so judge them as pretentious and douche-baggy, so scratch that.

In the internet age, recall memory—the ability to spontaneously call information up in your mind—has become less necessary…but largely, Horvath says, what’s called recognition memory is more important. “So long as you know where that information is at and how to access it, then you don’t really need to recall it,” he says.

I didn’t know that there were terms for different types of memories, but it’s so true that recall memory is not as relevant as recognition memory these days. Wonder if it’ll change with time.

Research has shown that the internet functions as a sort of externalized memory…With its streaming services and Wikipedia articles, the internet has lowered the stakes on remembering the culture we consume even further.

This is partly true. I feel that the internet is so vast and diverse that one still needs a system to collect and organize all the information that we come across. Maybe a blog is modern day’s external memory.

Last year, Horvath and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne found that those who binge-watched TV shows forgot the content of them much more quickly than people who watched one episode a week….They also reported enjoying the show less than did people who watched it once a day, or weekly….The lesson from his binge-watching study is that if you want to remember the things you watch and read, space them out. 

Binge-watching was my guilty pleasure, but it appears that if I want to enjoy the show a bit more, I should consider watching it weekly or daily. What a buzz kill!

Sana says that often when we read, there’s a false “feeling of fluency.” The information is flowing in, we’re understanding it, it seems like it is smoothly collating itself into a binder to be slotted onto the shelves of our brains. “But it actually doesn’t stick unless you put effort into it and concentrate and engage in certain strategies that will help you remember.”

False feeling of fluency. Man, I feel this all the time, especially when I read non-fiction books.

Still, not all memories that wander are lost….Memory is “all associations, essentially,” Sana says.

Often times, I remember something at the most random times after hearing old songs. They contain multitudes of memories that flash before my eyes, triggered by memories.

How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text?”

Reading as a marker of who I was and what I was thinking when I read that text. What a philosophical spin on reading!

Books, shows, movies, and songs aren’t files we upload to our brains—they’re part of the tapestry of life, woven in with everything else.

All the information that we consume become a part of our lives, even if the memory is a bit fuzzy on the details.

Final Thoughts

It was nice to read that forgetting what I read and consume online is natural and that I’m not the only one suffering from it. However, because I know that this tendency is real, I need to (1) avoid binge-watching or reading if I want to retain any information and (2) create and maintain an external memory log of sorts, so that I have one place for me to retrieve information.

I’ve failed at the second step multiple times because I wasn’t the best in terms of coming up with a system and sticking to it, but I’m hoping that this blog will allow me to do a better job.


Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

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