Consolidation Theory Of Forgetting

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated July 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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In memory consolidation psychology, memory and memory consolidation rely on a healthy body and brain. Many areas may affect your mind's ability to retain information, including age, substance use, medications, diseases, and mental health. Learning about these areas can be beneficial when trying to improve your memory consolidation ability.

Concerned about your ability to remember?

Consolidation

The memory consolidation process involves the storage of information in long-term memory. This occurs when memory traces are reinforced, stabilized, and saved so that we can later recall them. 

What is a memory trace?

Also called an engram, a memory trace is a change in the nervous system that is thought to encode a memory. These memory traces assist us in reconstructing memories. After the memory trace is created, consolidation strengthens it through changes in neural pathways. The exact alterations that occur to create a memory trace are unknown; but research suggests that they are formed in the cerebellum and hippocampus

How consolidation occurs

To understand the concept of memory consolidation, it may be helpful to think of memory as a muscle. Exercising your memory with repetition may help you retain memories over time and feel confident in recalling information. For example, perhaps you spent hours and hours in school studying and using the Pythagorean theorem. Doing so may have allowed you to exercise your brain to store the formula in your long-term memory. This process is called memory consolidation

On the opposite end, placing your keys on the kitchen table when you get home and forgetting about them can be an example of a lack of memory consolidation. In this case, placing the keys down is an automatic gesture, so you may forget that you've done it. However, if you always place your keys on the same hook, your memory consolidation may allow you to know where they are when you leave the next day.

What are memories?

Memory is defined as the process of receiving information, storing details, and recalling that information later, all within the mind. Memory involves many portions of the brain, but the hippocampus, found within the brain's temporal lobes, is primarily responsible for emotions and memory

When taking in new information, details travel through the brain with a system of electric and chemical signals involving neurons, synapses, and neurotransmitters. Electric or chemical signals pass from neuron to neuron over the synapse, sometimes requiring the aid of neurotransmitters. The pattern of neurons and synapses this information travels through can train the neurons to react in similar patterns. 

This pattern of reactivation is a memory. Rather than memory being an organized system with separate compartments in the brain, it is an ever-changing system of neural patterns and pathways in which information travels across many brain regions.

In memory consolidation, recalling the same piece of information repeatedly trains the neurons to act together efficiently and rapidly. As this repetition continues, the neurons learn to fire together in the original pattern; thus, the information is more readily available in memory.

Theory of forgetting 

For decades, experts in human memory have sought to explain the processes by which we experience memory failures. Theories of forgetting can help us understand how deficiencies in memory retrieval occur. While several other frameworks exist (e.g., repressed memories), the following are five of the most prominent theories of forgetting, separated by whether they impact short-term or long-term memory. 

Forgetting information in short-term memory

Trace decay theory of forgetting 

An early theory of forgetting, the trace decay theory, posits that failing to retrieve a memory trace can cause it to deteriorate. According to the trace decay theory, all memories fade over time. When old memories decay, their retrieval becomes more difficult. 

Displacement theory of forgetting

The displacement theory of forgetting states that the storage of new memories in short-term memory causes older information to be removed. This displacement occurs because of limited space in short-term memory. 

Forgetting information in long-term memory 

Retrieval failure theory of forgetting 

According to the retrieval failure theory, forgetting occurs when information in long-term memory is unable to be recalled. Proponents of this theory state that our memories are associated with certain memory cues, or retrieval cues. A retrieval cue may be a related image, word, sound, or other stimulus. When these retrieval cues are unavailable, we are not able to retrieve the information, and we experience a form of memory failure known as cue-dependent forgetting.

Interference theory of forgetting

The interference theory of forgetting is based on the idea that memories can be lost due to the formation or existence of other memories. These recent and remote memories can impact memory performance through two processes—proactive and retroactive interference. Proactive interference occurs when existing memories affect our ability to create new memories. Retroactive interference occurs when the formation of new memories interferes with our retrieval of existing memories. 

Consolidation theory of forgetting

Focused on disturbances during the process of reinforcing memory traces, the consolidation theory of forgetting is associated with the physiological, instead of psychological, functioning of the memory system. According to the consolidation theory, interference with the consolidation process prevents memory traces from stabilizing, making retrieval more difficult. There are several ways consolidation can be disrupted, including medications, brain abnormalities, and lack of sleep. Consolidation theory has been backed by functional magnetic resonance imaging studies.

Causes of memory challenges

Before understanding memory consolidation, it may benefit you to understand the causes of memory challenges and memory loss that may cause difficulty with cognitive ability. 

Age-related memory loss

As humans age, it can be natural for memory function to diminish gradually. Knowing that memories are constantly changing neural patterns, it can be easy to understand why no memories are permanent, including long-term and stored memories. Memory consolidation psychology shows many possible reasons that memory can decrease as people age. However, the two most common causes include reduced blood flow to the brain and deterioration of the hippocampus.
Other cases of memory decline can occur on a much more rapid and severe scale from certain diseases such as Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that progresses and irreversibly reduces an individual's mental functioning, including memory. Alzheimer's disease often leads to needing full-time care in the later stages of the progression. Dementia is a general term describing symptoms that significantly alter mental functioning.

Mental illness

Memory can be a vital part of personality and daily functioning. A few mental illnesses that impact cognitive ability may also lead to poor memory, including depression and anxiety. Those experiencing depression often report feeling as if their mind is foggy or clouded. When the brain is preoccupied with rumination and feelings of worry and anxiety, it can impair one's ability to form memories and learn new information. 

Schizophrenia is another mental illness commonly associated with decreased memory function. One meta-analysis documented significant memory impairment in schizophrenia. According to the study, "the impairment was stable, wide-ranging, and not substantially affected by potential moderating factors such as the severity of psychopathology and duration of illness."

Substance use 

Substance use may also cause significant interferences with memory consolidation and recall. Alcohol is one substance known for its potential memory interference, as it can lead to partial memory loss or complete blackouts if consumed in significant amounts. 

Research is still being conducted on the ways that alcohol interferes with memory, but it is believed to be, in part, due to the disruptions that alcohol creates in the hippocampus. It is also shown that alcohol use interferes with neurons and their ability to respond to signals from other cells consistently. Benzodiazepines, often prescribed for acute anxiety, also have similar impacts on memory consolidation. This effect is often amplified in those who misuse benzodiazepines.
How to improve memory consolidation 

According to memory consolidation psychology, the brain thrives on stimulation. Therefore, it is often said that learning new skills effectively cultivates brain health. For example, learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language can exercise your brain and activate multiple areas.  

Physical exercise is another proven way to boost mental functioning. The University of British Columbia conducted a study showing that regular aerobic exercise seemingly increased hippocampus size in older women with possible cognitive impairment. In addition, chronic inflammation can be linked to memory loss and cognitive decline later in life, and regular physical activity is linked to reducing inflammation in the body. 
The quality of sleep you get is also associated with brain functioning and memory. Getting enough sleep can allow you to better process, consolidate, and store new information as memories in the brain. Memory loss or difficulty remembering information is also often associated with sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, and other sleep-related disorders such as narcolepsy. 

Concerned about your ability to remember?

Experiencing difficulties with processing and retaining memory can be unsettling and, in some cases, frightening. If you are struggling with memory loss or other concerns about cognitive function, speak to a doctor immediately. A neurologist can help you isolate the potential causes of your symptoms and begin treatment if necessary.
If you discover that your memory issues could be related to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, contacting a therapist may also be beneficial. A psychologist can use methods like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to isolate the root cause of your challenges and provide you with tools to cultivate a healthier state of mind and a more significant capacity for memory retention.
The rise of online therapy in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders has removed many common barriers to therapy that keep people from getting help. For instance, online therapy is often more convenient, flexible, and affordable than in-person therapy. Studies have backed up these claims, showcasing the cost-effectiveness of internet-based interventions. 
Online platforms like BetterHelp match clients with mental health professionals with experience in various specialized care. You can speak with a counselor via phone, text, video chat, or online messaging to get started as you move toward better mental health.  
Takeaway
Memory is a continually changing, ever-shifting series of neural patterns within the brain that allows individuals to recall previously learned information. While there are many causes of memory impairment, healthy lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and challenging yourself mentally may keep your mind sharp and your memory healthy. If you seek further support, consider contacting a therapist for guidance.
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