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Are Memories Ever Forgotten?

Is anything ever completely forgotten? Measurements of the curve of forgetting using the most accurate methods led to the intriguing observation that the curve tends to approach, but not to reach, absolute zero.

From another angle, psychoanalysts raise the same question. In their incessant and constant probing of the memories of their patients, they often elicit recall of incidents in very early childhood. These incidents are likely to be highly emotional in character — fright, deprivation, joy, pain. Objective verification from adults has occasionally been obtained for these memories which go back into the first two years of life.

In states of intense emotion, adults often swear or use other expressions from a language unused since early childhood. People in delirium may babble of events long past. All these kinds of data confirm the view that memory may be surprisingly durable.

On the other hand, it is worth emphasizing that what is true in a microscopic sense may be so minute as to make no practical difference. Thousands of trivial events, occurring daily, are remembered so poorly that they might as well be lost; and indeed it is best so. Facts and situations important to need satisfaction tend to be retained; those items which do not contribute to the gratification of motives are dropped by the wayside. The detective may remember isolated details of no apparent significance, but he has a motive for observing and recalling such materials. Most of us do not. Forgetting trivial data serves the purpose of conserving energy for more important functions.

The infantile memories resurrected by the psychoanalyst are not trivia. They represent motivational events of great significance to the child. Trivialities which have a sign function with reference to such satisfactions or frustrations may be recalled; probably, only such minor incidents are retained. For practical purposes it is correct to say that the memories never forgotten are those which have significance in relation to organismic needs and motives.

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