“It is astonishing, in the end, how difficult it is to know
the things you know. What I mean is that all I had discovered
was everything I knew all along.”
― Aoibheann Sweeney
Anyone who has spent much time with children has heard the common
refrain, “I forgot”. It can be the answer to anything from, “Where are your shoes?” to “Why are you late?” The phrase “I forgot” is probably more true than most adults want to accept. There are many ways that our mind has to get us to “forget” a piece of information, an event or an experience that it finds uncomfortable or threatening.
As a child, forgetting is an important skill, especially if you are subjected to
experiences that are frightening or traumatizing. For example, perhaps you had an especially bad bicycle accident where you broke your leg, or the time you picked all the neighbors flowers and your mother shamed you because she was embarrassed about what you had done. We’ve all experienced a similar situation, where the pain, the shame, the fear, was too much to bear.
Our brain is designed to help us survive and part of survival is to not relive trauma. Therefore, the brain has devised many ways to forget. We begin to use these ways of forgetting in childhood and carry them forward into our adult life. These behaviors happen automatically and without our awareness, which means they can create difficulties in adult life.
Ways We Forget
It is amazing how we can decide to forget. This is particularly important for children when they encounter an event that is too much for them to process. They do not have the emotional maturity or the life experience to make sense of an event, so they will simply forget.
Was first used to describe the act of concealing disgust. It is the act of concealing one’s feelings by showing a different emotion. Studies show that this ability begins as early as preschool and improves with age. It is usually used to conceal what are considered negative emotions. For example, Jane may find Alice disgusting but will cover that with a pleasant greeting and a smile.
I took my grandchildren to an indoor fun park. When we walked
in, there were vivid colors, flashing lights, and several different activities going on all at once. We could not focus on any single thing, and it took us a few moments to even see what was available. Our eyes and mind could only take in so much stimuli. We were flooded with information and awareness was crowded out of our minds.
Our minds can become flooded with images and information that can crowd the current event out and we will not remember. At times, we will do this ourselves by flooding ourselves with stimuli so that we cannot attend to the situation.
In order to remember and process events, we need to pay attention so that we can encode it in our brain. Not paying attention to what is happening around you, or focusing on one aspect and not attending to or ignoring another will cause us to forget.
5. Attention Blink:
When there are multiple things happening in quick succession, it is easy to miss the details or the transitions from one event to another. There are “blind spots” in your attention. You could be driving on I-40, the driver in front of you slams on the breaks and you barely miss them. Before you have time to process the event, a deer darts in front of your car. The time between the two events is the attention blink and lasts about a half second. It is like blinking your eyes and missing critical information.
One memory replaces another. If you have an experience that feels overwhelming, it gets replaced by a happy event. The opposite can be true as well. For some people who have been abused, all events are reformulated to look like the abuse.
Forgetting a situation or event it does not mean it is gone, and will not bother us. The emotions do not disappear; in fact, they may intensify and influence us in ways that are interfere with our lives. Remembering is the way to have a full life, but it often requires help.
“…all that I discovered, was everything I knew all along.”