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Ebbinghaus Theory: The Forgetting Curve

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve About Memory

Before opening your books or even trying to learn anything, you need to understand how memory works (otherwise, it wouldn’t be fun). First of all, you should know that it has been reported that the brain literally works like a muscle, but it has nothing to do with it. It’s a simplistic analogy when you know that the brain is sensitive to emotions, the sleep cycle, and the environment.

The memory

Let’s get to the heart of the matter. Memory is divided into two categories. We speak of immediate or short-term memory and long-term memory. The first, allows you to keep information for a short and limited period of time. It acts as a kind of filter that allows the brain not to store too much unnecessary information.

Regarding long-term memory, it presents 4 systems:

– Episodic memory allows you to remember events that have happened. The more important the event is to you, the stronger the intensity of the memory will be.

– Semantic memory presents a more playful aspect than the first. It allows you to remember something without it being linked to an event or a place. Ultimately, you know very well how to use a pen without asking yourself questions. Well, that’s thanks to this subtype.

– Procedural memory is a non-declarative memory that allows automatic motor skills. This subtype replays to why we can’t forget how to ride a bicycle for example. – Perceptual memory allows you to keep information provided by the senses (smell, touch, sight, hearing). In your case, this is the one you need to boost as much as possible.

The oblivion/forgetting curve

As medical students, our objective is to become a good practitioner. (To achieve this goal, we have to go through the exams and who say exams, say revisions.) You must have found yourself at least once in the situation where you have made a revision schedule that you followed to the letter, and on the day of the exam: blackout, panic, you don’t remember anything; by the way, it’s happened to me as well, and you know what, luckily we learn from our mistakes. I wondered why was I forgetting that fast and why my method had not worked out when frankly, I put a lot of effort into it and I was motivated. My research takes me to the curve of oblivion; poetic isn’t it?

To learn your lessons, you have to go through memorization. It comes in 3 phases, each equally important because forgetting is caused by failures in each of those phases. First, we have the encoding phase; this is the time when you discover your lessons. It is followed by the storage when you actively learn the information and finally by the recovery, which consists of putting into practice what you have learned.

Graph showing Information Retention Percentage over days
Graph showing Information Retention over days

On this graph, you learn that you are at 100% of your capacity to retain information at the time of memorization, which means that everything is fine, you are comfortable, and you know the information. The further we advance in time, the more the slope of the curve decreases (this signifies that your capacities for retaining the information previously encoded are decreasing and, therefore, that you are forgetting).

Typically almost 50% of information is lost only 2 days after encoding, which is why my old schedule hadn’t worked. What I have learned at the start of my studies I was unable to remember given the length of time information is stored in our brain.

You must ask yourself how you’ll be able to improve this and respond to the vagaries of memory.

The solution

First of all, you should know that Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German philosopher, was the first to be interested in the functioning of memory as well as its mechanisms. Among other things, he discovered the curves of forgetting, learning and their specificities.

To overcome the phenomenon of forgetting, Ebbinghaus proposes a scheme for recalling information encoded at different dates.

Graph showing Information Retention Percentage during time
Graph showing Information Retention over time

Ebbinghaus’s theory is based on the fact that repetition will prevent depletion of the curve. So if you review your lessons at the time interval listed on the curve, you will consolidate your memory and gain information retention.

In practice, if your goal is to maintain your knowledge, you will have to do revisions at 10 min, 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, and finally 6 months. This will result in information retention of up to 80% over time.

Final Thoughts

To learn in a fun and intelligent way, several applications and software can be proposed according to what you would like to achieve. Whether it’s learning a new language with Duolingo or Rosetta Stone or improving your knowledge thanks to Anki and its Anki add ons. All this software is based on the principle of the learning and forgetting curve. Thanks to the use of flashcards and their reappearances at predefined time intervals, you can accumulate a lot of information efficiently in a short period of time.

That’s all for me, folks,

See you in the next one!

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