Why You Can Forget Something Just Seconds After You Saw It

·Deputy Editor

No, you’re not going crazy. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s happened to all of us: You see something, and then just moments later, you have completely forgotten what it is you saw.

No, you’re probably not going crazy. According to a new study, it’s a phenomenon called “attribute amnesia” — difficulty remembering something when there’s no expectation to have to remember it later on.

In other words, it’s evidence that memory may be way more selective than realized.

“It seems like memory is sort of like a camcorder,” study researcher Brad Wyble, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University, said in a statement. “If you don’t hit the ‘record’ button on the camcorder, it’s not going to ‘remember’ what the lens is pointed at. But if you do hit the ‘record’ button — in this case, you know what you’re going to be asked to remember — then the information is stored.”

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For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers divvied 100 college students into groups. Each group participated in an experiment that followed the same general principle: They were presented with four characters arranged in a square (say, three letters and a number), and were asked to remember in which corner a specific letter was. The letters would slowly disappear, and the study participants had to recall the location of the letter.

Sure enough, researchers found that this task was not hard; the study participants were right nearly the entire time.

But then the participants were thrown a curve ball, and asked a question they were not told they would be asked: Researchers showed them four letters on the screen, and asked them which one of the letters had appeared on the screen previously.

The success rate was much lower for this task — just 25 percent were able to correctly name the letter that had appeared on the previous screen.

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“The information we asked them about in the surprise question was important, because we had just asked them to use it,” study researcher Hui Chen, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Penn State, said in a statement. “It was not irrelevant to the task they were given.”

Wyble added that the results were surprising since “traditional theories of attention assume that when a specific piece of information is attended, that information is also stored in memory and therefore participants should have done better on the surprise memory test.”

When the researchers asked this surprise question again in the next round, the participants’ success rate went up (average of correct answers went up to 65 to 95 percent) — which researchers pointed out was because the participants were likely expecting to be asked the question, and so made a point to remember that particular information.

While all this may seem like evidence of a flaw in human memory, the researchers point out that it may actually be a good thing — in that the brain is not holding on to information it does not deem important.

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