Reality Check: The Challenge of Forgetfulness

Do you believe that you are forgetful? If so, do you find that troubling?
Recently, I explored some research around learning and what we might do to help people retain what they’ve learned. I had looked at this research before, several years ago. Ironically, I had forgotten about it until I came across it again.
Learning is so important. The fact that we can continue to learn throughout our lives has an impact on our quality of life; our relationships; our very survival.
Yet, so much of what we learn seems to quickly slip away. If we haven’t used old pieces of knowledge for a little while, they seem to get replaced by new information that’s captured our attention. Even when it’s something that we know is important, it can fade so quickly.
The reality of forgetfulness reared its ugly head recently for me when I was using unfamiliar software. It’s a little different from what I’m accustomed to. So, a few months ago, I spent quite a bit of time making notes and working through tutorials. I wanted to be able to use it when I needed it.
But of course, when I finally did have a need and sat down to use this fancy software, it was as if I had never seen it before. Wow, none of that looks familiar! What are those menus and icons?
Aggravating! I knew that I had taught myself to use this. And now I have to start all over again to relearn it. Why does this always happen? It seems like such a waste, and I hate waste.
Does any of that sound familiar to you? While your learning may not be in the same context as mine, have you experienced the same aggravation of having to relearn something that you used to know?
Was that original learning wasted? If we can’t remember, why bother learning at all?
The information about learning and remembering that I’d found involves the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. As the name implies, it’s a curve that predicts how we forget.
While I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you to hear that we forget new information, what might surprise you is just how quickly that happens.
Dr. Art Kohn, professor and corporate training expert, has written that within just one hour, people will have forgotten an average of 50% of what they’ve just learned. Ouch! After a day—a mere 24 hours—they’ve forgotten an average of 70%. And of course, the percentage forgotten increases as time goes on.
Some people will remember more; others will remember less. But based on that, my conclusion is that it’s kind of incredible that we remember anything at all!
Kohn was specifically referring to forgetting from the perspective of corporate training. Even so, I chose to feel a little less irritated with myself for having forgotten details of software that I hadn’t looked at in months.
Forgetting is natural; even desirable. (You don’t have to take it from me; this comes from Kohn.) We need our brains to focus on what’s essential and to let the unnecessary stuff go.
For example, do you remember exactly where you parked your car when you went shopping three weeks ago? Neither do I. However, at that time, I was able to remember the location long enough so that I could find my car again. The information isn’t useful anymore, so by now it’s forgotten. This is not a bad thing.
We remember some things; forget others. Can we get better control over what exactly we remember, and what we forget?
According to Kohn and others, the answer is yes. I’ll share some suggestions next time. Till then, do you have suggestions for remembering the important things in your life?

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