Dissociating memory accessibility and precision in forgetting

Nat Hum Behav. 2020 Aug;4(8):866-877. doi: 10.1038/s41562-020-0888-8. Epub 2020 Jun 8.


Forgetting involves the loss of information over time; however, we know little about what form this information loss takes. Do memories become less precise over time, or do they instead become less accessible? Here we assessed memory for word-location associations across four days, testing whether forgetting involves losses in precision versus accessibility and whether such losses are modulated by learning a generalizable pattern. We show that forgetting involves losses in memory accessibility with no changes in memory precision. When participants learned a set of related word-location associations that conformed to a general pattern, we saw a strong trade-off; accessibility was enhanced, whereas precision was reduced. However, this trade-off did not appear to be modulated by time or confer a long-term increase in the total amount of information maintained in memory. Our results place theoretical constraints on how models of forgetting and generalization account for time-dependent memory processes. PROTOCOL REGISTRATION: The stage 1 protocol for this Registered Report was accepted in principle on 4 June 2019. The protocol, as accepted by the journal, can be found at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4368464.v1 .

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders*
  • Memory*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Models, Psychological
  • Retention, Psychology
  • Young Adult

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.4368464.v1