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What is the curve of oblivion?

What is the curve of oblivion?

May 11, 2024

Forget. Today most people spend their lives making efforts to acquire new knowledge and skills, recording and coding different information to retain in memory, both consciously and unconsciously.

However, often we have to review and practice what we have learned in order to maintain it, or else it ends up vanishing . Although in some cases, such as traumatic events and depressions, we may wish that those knowledge or memories disappear (which, on the other hand, can make us retain them even more in memory), in most cases, forgetfulness occurs totally involuntary.


Traditionally, a large amount of research on memory and its processes, including forgetting, has been carried out from psychology. One of the studies that initiated the study of oblivion was carried out by Hermann Ebbinghaus , which elaborated what is known as the curve of oblivion.

What is forgetting?

The concept of forgetfulness refers to the loss of accessibility to the information previously processed in the memory, this forgetting being possible due to very different circumstances. Generally this phenomenon is due to deviations from the attention, or to the simple passage of time, although It is possible that forgetfulness occurs as a way to block a stressful situation or due to the presence of some type of disorder, be it organic or psychological.


Although at a conscious level it seems somewhat annoying and undesirable, the ability to forget fulfills an adaptive function. Through oblivion we are able to eliminate from our brain the information and concepts that we do not need or use, so we ignore the details and circumstantial elements in order to allow us to focus on the core of the problem. When we remember a specific moment in our lives we do not usually remember in detail (except in very exceptional cases with photographic memory and / or situations of great emotionality) all the stimuli that were present in this situation, but the main idea, because we have allowed the oblivion of the most contextual elements.

One of the first studies carried out with respect to this phenomenon was the one that led to the elaboration of the oblivion curve, which has subsequently been explained through various theories. Let's proceed to explain how this forgetting curve was obtained and some of the explanatory theories that derive from it .


Hermann Ebbinghaus and the curve of oblivion

The name of Hermann Ebbinghaus He is well known in the world of psychology because of its great importance in the study of memory. This famous German psychologist contributed greatly to clarify and study the various processes involved in the retention of information, as well as the loss or forgetfulness of it.

His studies led him to carry out a series of experiments, with himself as an experimental subject, in which he worked from repetition to the memorization of series of syllables that were repeated until their perfect memorization, and later evaluating the level of retention of said material through time without making any review of it.

Through the results of the experiments carried out, Ebbinghaus outlined the well-known curve of oblivion, a graph that indicates how, before the memorization of a given material, the level of retention of learned information decreases logarithmically with the passage of time. This curve of oblivion was made through the method of saving through which the time necessary to relearn the list to the time necessary to learn it for the first time is subtracted. Through this curve it is possible to make a comparison between the material that is processed initially and the one that is kept in the memory. to. From the author's perspective, this loss is due to the passage of time and the non-use of information.

The results of the experiments and their analysis in the curve of oblivion indicate that after the moment of information acquisition, the level of memorized material dropped drastically in the first moments, and more than half of the material learned could disappear from consciousness. long of the first day. After this the material continues to fade, but the amount of information that is forgotten in a certain time is decreasing until it reaches a point, approximately from the week of learning, in which there is no greater loss. However, the material that is retained after this time is practically nil, so the time used to relearn it can be very similar to the initial one.

Some remarkable aspects that can be seen from the curve of oblivion is that, at all times, less time is needed to relearn a material than to learn it from scratch, even in fragments that have vanished from memory.In this way, this along with other researches of various authors help to show that in the process of forgetting the information does not vanish from the mind, but rather goes to an unconscious level that allows recovery through effort and review .

Explanations derived from the Ebbinghaus theory

The oblivion curve is a graph that allows to take into account the progressive loss of previously memorized material, as long as the material is not reviewed.

From the observations that led to its realization, different theories have emerged that attempt to explain this loss, two of which are the following.

1. Theory of footprint decay

The theory of the decay of the trace is a theory elaborated by the own Ebbinghaus that tries to explain the curve of the forgetfulness . For the author, the loss of information is due mainly to the little use given to such information, with which the memory imprint left in our organism weakens and fades with the passage of time. At a biological level, it is considered that neuronal structures end up losing the modifications that learning produces in them, which would return to a state similar to that prior to learning.

Research shows that the decline of memory occurs especially in short-term memory, but if the information is passed to the long-term memory becomes permanent. In the event that something stored in long-term memory is not accessible, the problem occurs mainly at the level of retrieval of information.

However, this theory is criticized for the fact that it does not take into account various factors, such as the appearance of new material that hinders access to information. In addition there are many variables that influence the ability to remember, such as the amount of material to remember or the emotional significance of the information processed. Thus, the greater the amount of material the greater the difficulty of maintaining it over time and in the event that knowledge awakens sensations and strong emotions in the apprentice, it is easier for the memory to remain.

2. Theories of interference

Several authors considered that the theory of the decadence of the trace was not sufficient to explain the process of forgetting. Taking into account that the human being is constantly learning new things, an element that these authors considered that had not been taken into account are the problems caused by the overlap of new or old knowledge with the material learned. This is how the theories of interference emerged, They argue that the information to be learned is lost because other information interferes with access to it .

Such interference may occur retroactively or proactively. In the case of proactive interference, prior learning hinders the acquisition of a new one. Although it does not properly explain oblivion, but a problem in coding information. Retroactive interference is what produces the presence of new knowledge that overlaps the material to remember. Thus, learning something new makes it hard for us to remember the above. This phenomenon would explain to a great extent the loss of information that occurs in the curve of oblivion.

How to avoid forgetting

The study of memory and forgetting has allowed the creation of different strategies and techniques in order that the learnings remain in the memory. To avoid the effects observed in the curve of forgetting, it is essential to review the material learned.

As demonstrated by the experiments carried out, the repeated review of the information makes the learning consolidate more and more, progressively lowering the level of information loss over time.

The use of mnemonic strategies is also very useful , by improving the capacity of mental representation. The aim is to use the resources available to the nervous system in a more efficient way to group the information units in a more efficient way. Thus, even if the brain loses neurons and other important cells over time, those that remain can communicate in a more efficient way, retaining important information.

But even in cases where there is no significant brain damage, mnemonic techniques help us mitigate the effects of the forgetting curve. The reason is that they help us create more solid units of meaning, which we can reach by remembering a more varied variety of experiences. For example, if we associate a word with a cartoon character that has a similar name, the phoneme chain that forms that proper name will help us to remember what we want to remember.

In short, the forgetting curve is a universal phenomenon, but we have a certain margin of maneuver when it comes to establishing what can make us forget and what can not.

  • Related article: "11 tricks to remember better when studying"

Bibliographic references:

  • Averell, L .; Heathcote, A. (2011). The form of the forgetting curve and the fate of memories. Journal of Mathematical Psychology. 55: 25-35.
  • Baddeley, A. (1999). Human memory Theory and practice. Ed. Mc. Graw Hill. Madrid.
  • Baddeley, A .; Eysenck, M. W. & Anderson, M. C.(2010). Memory. Alliance.
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Teachers
  • College, Columbia University. New York

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