Where'd I put my keys?

Memory research sheds light on creativity, learning—and forgetting

Photo of keys hanging on hooks
"We like to make students feel learning is easy," says memory expert Ben Storm, below. "But they're likely being fooled, because they may not be engaging in the type of processes that create deep or meaningful learning." (Key photo by Carolyn Lagattuta; Storm photo by Melissa De Witte)
Head shot of Ben Storm

Ben Storm studies memory, so it's fortunate that he's pretty quick to learn the names of students in his psychology classes each quarter. But it turns out he's also good at forgetting.

According to Storm, our ability to remember is closely linked to our ability to forget.

"Our memory system is designed to make things inaccessible," said Storm. "It's adaptive, not a failure."

That message—likely welcome news for many—is just one of many insights about memory shared by Storm, an associate professor of psychology who is fascinated by how memory supports thinking, learning, and creativity.

As a graduate student at UCLA, Storm was drawn to what psychologists call "retrieval-induced forgetting." The vast majority of memory research is based on experiments that test a participant's ability to "study and retrieve" a list of words. Basically, Storm explained, subjects are given a list of words to remember, then asked to recall them. The act of retrieving some words actually makes people forget the others. This phenomenon—"retrieval-induced forgetting"—was identified well before researchers understood the mechanism that causes it.

"Forgetting is part of learning and remembering," said Storm. "Our memory system pushes away some things in an attempt to remember other things. The system is designed to prevent what we call 'non-target information' from interfering with the retrieval of target information."

Which also explains why, when you're trying hard to remember to pick up milk and eggs at the grocery store, you forget to buy bread.

It's not that our memories are finite, like a computer hard drive that reaches capacity and can't accommodate any more data. "Storage strength is effectively infinite. It's retrieval that's difficult," said Storm. "Retrieval is severely limited—which is why forgetting helps."

Memory is fabulous—and fallible

Storm is interested in how context influences memory—psychological and social processes that affect recall. "Once you learn something, even if it's been years, you're going to relearn it faster the second time around," he said. "And you might be able to retrieve it faster if you're given the right cue."

Cues are environmental factors, including your thoughts, mood, the company you're in—even questions on a test. "Cues are incredibly important for retrieval and access," he said. "Cues determine what you can remember at a given point of time."

Memories, of course, are susceptible to change. Every time we call up a memory, it becomes susceptible to modification. Lab experiments indicate that this mechanism operates regardless of content; happy, sad, boring, and traumatic memories, for example, can all be changed as a consequence of retrieval.

"Memory wasn't designed to be perfect," said Storm. "It was designed to inform our behaviors." Memory allows us to rely on short cuts and "rule of thumb" ways of thinking—even gut feelings, he noted.

Does technology help or hurt?

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the founding of Google, Storm is acutely aware that very few people under the age of 30 remember life without the internet. What impact does technology have on memory and how we learn?

"Humans are no longer alone," he said. "We now remember in concert with devices."

That relationship, however, is complex and full of surprises, as Storm and his graduate students are discovering.

For a generation that's obsessed with taking photos to document and "remember" every aspect of their lives, doctoral student Julia Soares's research may be disappointing: Her recent study produced compelling evidence that taking photographs impairs—rather than improves—people's memories of events.

Storm's research also suggests that relying on the internet to access information can actually diminish the learning experience. It can make taking in new information so easy that it skips the cognitive process of developing and refining "schemas," which is the brain's way of organizing information.

"Once you get used to using Google, you retrieve information from your own memory less often, which robs yourself of an important learning experience," he said. "You lose the opportunity to create deeper, higher-level learning structures."

Human cognition and memory are complicated, intertwined processes that involve putting information together, integrating it, and coming up with new ideas. "Creating new ideas," mused Storm. "Isn't that one of our goals as educators?"

Feeling nervous is a valuable aspect of learning

As a professor and a memory researcher, Storm has some doubts about the efficacy of common educational strategies. Learning involves more than memorizing facts, he says. Real learning is about discovering a passion for knowledge, and helping students take new information and connect it to things they care about.

"We like to make students feel learning is easy," he said. "But they're likely being fooled, because they may not be engaging in the type of processes that create deep or meaningful learning."

A lot of teaching and learning strategies focus on helping students prepare to do well on tests—even if they will forget the material the next day. Deep learning requires interaction. Students who feel uncertain about material actually remember more, because they are forced to engage more deeply, generate new ideas, and make connections to resolve that uncertainty. This process embeds new material within one's knowledge structures, or schemas. Without it, learning can be superficial.

"Students who don't like to be challenged, who want it to feel easy, may not be learning as much," said Storm, who tries "within reason" to develop and utilize instructional strategies built around these insights.

"Students need to buy in, so I explain it to them," he said. "Quizzes and assignments can be designed to make students retrieve information, to think and connect to their knowledge and their interests. It's not about making learning difficult for the sake of making it difficult, it's about making it challenging and enjoyable, so it feels rewarding. When they're engaged, it's like tricking them into learning better than they would have."

One of the study tips Storm offers students is to "do something different," because processing information in new and different ways helps learning. Rather than take a practice test, he suggests, create practice tests and share them with classmates. If you rely on highlighting material to study, try studying without it. (Storm described a memory study that examined the value of highlighting. Researchers found it can be helpful—particularly for those who hate to highlight: "Their benefit was enormous," he said.)

Storm expressed some frustration with what he considers an overemphasis on innate differences in learning. "What makes me sad is all the talk about limited capacity," he said. "That's not right. That's not understanding how learning and cognition works. And it becomes self-limiting. It has an effect on students. We all have an incredible power to learn."

Memory and creativity: The riddle of the absentminded professor

If "cues" are essential to our ability to retrieve memories, "blockers" cause mental fixations that get in the way of creativity. Forgetting, it turns out, can help bust blockers—which means forgetting is critical to the creative process, too.

"Forgetting allows us to think outside the box," said Storm.

Researchers have tested this process in the lab by giving subjects an everyday object, like a paper clip, and asking them to come up with novel uses. Researchers present a few examples of creative uses and then ask subjects to list as many new ideas as they can in two minutes. "The extent to which the subject forgets the examples they're given correlates with their creativity," said Storm. "If they fixate on the examples, they can't come up with their own new ideas."

This process explains why it's helpful to take a break when you feel stymied by a problem or creative challenge. "You can take advantage of it by going for a run or thinking about something else," said Storm. "When you take you mind off something it can seem counterproductive, but you're actually better off."

This is an example of what Storm calls the "adaptive nature of forgetting." If you focus on the old way of thinking, you're not going to "make the jump," he said.

For Storm, the pursuit of multiple aspects of memory research is challenging, engaging, and also a bit hectic.

"It would be easier to have one niche than to try to make connections between different areas," he said. "But I find so many things interesting. I can't leave any of them behind."