Conquering forgetfulness: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

5 minute read

Illustration of a student looking at a graph
Illustration of a student looking at a graph
Illustration of a student looking at a graph
Illustration of a student looking at a graph

It’s a fairly common situation. You’ll spend hours studying something, come out of the library feeling pretty good, and then realise you’ve forgotten it all by breakfast. The good news is that you’re not the only one; this phenomenon affects all of us. Likewise, the bad news is that it affects all of us, and is something we need to learn to work around. Our brains are brilliant at processing and storing information from all the sources we come across, but they’re also good at forgetting that information. The way we forget information was outlined by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in his forgetting curve, and the curve is also the key to mastering our memory.

What is the forgetting curve?

It’s not just that we forget things the next day, often, it’ll be a more gradual process: after one long session poring over textbooks and trying to memorise key points, we forget them over time. Maybe you’ll remember half of them a week later, and even less a week after that.

Graph showing how memory retention decreases over time

It was Ebbinghaus who discovered this phenomenon in the late 19th century. He found that our memory follows a predictable pattern of forgetfulness: when we learn something new, our memory rapidly deteriorates, with the most significant decline in the first 24 hours, but further loss occurs over time. Reading this probably doesn’t fill you with confidence if you’ve got an exam on the horizon, but...

We can overcome the forgetting curve

Don’t despair; the forgetting curve isn’t as relentless as it initially seems; the secret to getting around it lies in repetition. Ebbinghaus also found that revisiting information at spaced intervals reinforces the memory and improves retention. For maximum effect, these intervals should be shorter initially, and become more spaced out over time. This has become the principle now known as ‘spaced repetition' — it’s not the most creative name.

Graph showing how retention improves each time you relearn information

Speaking of which, a personal example of this phenomenon comes from people's names. If I meet someone and learn their name once, I’m almost guaranteed to have forgotten it within a few days. It takes meeting them a few times and being reminded of their name, for it to really sink in - although people generally don’t like it when I ask their name for the fifth time! However, it’s a good example of spaced repetition in the real world.

Graph showing how the interval between each relearning session increases

It’s important to note that the duration of each interval isn’t fixed; it depends on the individual and what they’re learning. Each review of the information is designed to interrupt the forgetting curve at the optimal moment, but that moment isn’t a set one. It depends on things like when information was last reviewed, how many times it has been reviewed already, how confident the learner feels, and how quickly they learn new information. That’s why we’ve made sure Luna considers all these things when determining interval length as part of spaced repetition.

Break it down

The modern world is often one of information overload: our brains are bombarded with facts, figures, news, and pub quiz trivia. One of the better ways to retain information is to break it down into manageable chunks. Our brains are hardwired to remember patterns and associations, so breaking down information into meaningful groups based on shared qualities makes it easier to recall in the future. A common revision tip centred on this principle is imagining each fact you need to learn in a room of a house you’re walking through: the equation for photosynthesis might be in the dining room, for instance. Quite a boring dinner guest, but by associating all the facts with a common thread (the house), you’re more likely to remember them.

Breaking things down is a great method, but remember, variety is the spice of life; it’s no different when it comes to memory. It makes the learning journey more enjoyable and effective. Try incorporating a variety of learning strategies into your study routine: flashcards one day, reading notes out loud the next, discussing with friends later in the week. Mixing up the way you’re reviewing information activates different parts of your brain and improves memory encoding. Plus, it keeps you engaged with the content and stops staring out of a window becoming more interesting than your studies!

Are you sleeping enough?

Sleep quantity and quality are things that have often been overlooked in the past. Increasingly, it’s recognised as being essential for so much, both physically and mentally. It’s the same when it comes to memory consolidation; research has shown that a good night’s sleep (at least seven hours) plays a crucial role in solidifying newly acquired information into long-term memory.

During sleep, our brains go through memory reactivation, where they replay and strengthen neural pathways associated with recent learning. It’s a key part of the learning process, and you’ll have a much harder time retaining information without good-quality sleep. So when someone complains about how much time you spend in bed, remind them that you’re just learning some new information!

To conclude…

And there you have it: the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. It may seem daunting on the surface, but when equipped with the knowledge to overcome forgetfulness, the curve becomes a powerful tool. The most crucial factor is repetition, and spacing repetitions at the right intervals will make a big difference to your learning. Breaking down information and keeping your study methods fresh are important too, and sleep is the sleeping giant of memorisation.

So on your next learning journey, spare a thought for the forgetting curve and the strategies around it. You’ll be well on your way to mastering your memory.

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Marketing Executive

Curtis is a former student with the University of Leeds, and now hopes to help current students get the most out of their studies. Prior to Booost Curtis worked in the energy industry, where he supported disabled customers during the COVID-19 pandemic before making the move to marketing.

Marketing Executive

Curtis is a former student with the University of Leeds, and now hopes to help current students get the most out of their studies. Prior to Booost Curtis worked in the energy industry, where he supported disabled customers during the COVID-19 pandemic before making the move to marketing.

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