Decay happens: the role of active forgetting in memory

Trends Cogn Sci. 2013 Mar;17(3):111-20. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.01.001. Epub 2013 Jan 29.


Although the biological bases of forgetting remain obscure, the consensus among cognitive psychologists emphasizes interference processes, rejecting decay in accounting for memory loss. In contrast to this view, recent advances in understanding the neurobiology of long-term memory maintenance lead us to propose that a brain-wide well-regulated decay process, occurring mostly during sleep, systematically removes selected memories. Down-regulation of this decay process can increase the life expectancy of a memory and may eventually prevent its loss. Memory interference usually occurs during certain active processing phases, such as encoding and retrieval, and will be stronger in brain areas with minimal sensory integration and less pattern separation. In areas with efficient pattern separation, such as the hippocampus, interference-driven forgetting will be minimal, and, consequently, decay will cause most forgetting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory Disorders / pathology*
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology
  • Memory, Long-Term / physiology*
  • Neocortex / physiology*