The Forgetting Curve

In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published what to this day memory researchers refer to as the “forgetting curve.” The forgetting curve shows how incredibly fast we can forget acquired information and knowledge.

Unless we go over information over and over and over and get it sealed in our minds, we forget it. I remember the phone number of my childhood — 913/462-6167. I can instantly recall the phone number that Jennifer and I had the first 25 years of our marriage — 217/367-8616.

I have written more than 750 religion columns for the local newspaper. But if someone asks me a day after my most recent column appears what I wrote on the day before, I more often than not say, “I have no idea.”

Sometimes I get stopped in a store by someone who says, “Excuse me. Are you Don Follis?” When I say, “Yes,” they say something like, “Oh, I faithfully read your column. You wrote one not long ago I really liked, but I don’t remember what it was about.” Well, me neither. I hope it was good! But yep, the forgetting curve at work. And I am not so naive as to think the content of my columns is so stupendous as to alter the learning curve.

It’s that way with preaching, too. I don’t remember what I preached 2 weeks back. I don’t remember the songs that were sung that day either. But I go back to worship every week, trusting the forgetting curve does not diminish the importance of having been with fellow believers.

Peter Marty, the publisher of The Christian Century Magazine that I read every week, says the cumulative effect of regular worship has a big effect on the shape of our lives. “The whole repetitive act itself, not merely the remembered particulars, forms us into certain kinds of people. My character and empathy, my spirit and perspective, my joy and gratitude are all shaped by more than the details of what little I can remember from last week’s worship.”

I love to read but don’t remember the fine details of most books, including the one I just read. But I keep reading because it has shaped so much of who I am, enlarging the way I think, act and perceive much of the world.

What I remember best, of course, are the things I do over and over. Every morning when I have my morning devotions I pretty much pray the same prayers. Thus, I can pray the confession of sin by memory, as well as the Apostles’ Creed, Psalm 23 and the Prayer of St. Francis. I never tire of praying those prayers either.

What are the things in your life that you have done so many times that the “forgetting curve” never gets activated? And what are some activities you do repeatedly (like remembering what I preached, or what book I just read) that you may not remember the fine details, but you keep doing them all the same?