Why do we forget things so quickly?

Picture the scene. You’ve been told you’re ringing after the next touch and you have the 8 minutes before your turn to re-cap and revise the method you’re about to ring– whether it’s Plain Bob Doubles, Stedman Triples or Bristol Maximus. You look up your leads one last time and recite the method a couple of times in your head. Then it comes to your go. You’re a little nervous; things went a bit wrong last time. But you’ve just looked up what you’re to do. What can go wrong?

You start to ring rounds. Nerves increase as you begin to recite the method in your head, anxiously waiting for the conductor to say “Go…”, but you suddenly realise you’ve forgotten a piece of the method. You’ve forgotten what you have correctly recited to yourself two minutes earlier; the very blue line you were physically holding! Once you begin ringing, impending doom awaits as you head towards that part of the method you’ve just forgotten.

This is – I bet – a familiar scene across many practice nights and a source of frustration for both learners and teachers alike. I know I am guilty of refreshing my memory at the last minute, only for that effort to fall flat. And I’ve seen teachers react to learners who have forgotten key details in ways that are perhaps not all too helpful.

In my proper job, I’ve been looking further into how memory works in an attempt to improve how my students can best learn information. Perhaps if we all have a greater knowledge of how our brains learn and retain information, it’ll help us – both ringing student and tutor – support one another more effectively.

People often have a misleading idea of what how our memory works. Our memory is not simply a repository of information. In fact, it is better to think of our brains as being filters – our brains are constantly “taking in” sensory information, its main function is to decide what information we need to keep and what we can “get rid of”. And I think we often underestimate how much our brain actually does retain. For example, most of us have acquired vocabularies of over 42,000 unique words, plus the abilities of syntax to place these words into sentences which others can understand. Furthermore, we recognise what these words mean and stand for. We can instantly recall that chocolate is tasty and safe to eat, using our senses of taste, sight, smell and touch to recognise what chocolate is. We know that a sharp knife can be dangerous, using our senses to recognise the danger and act cautiously.

We receive dozens of pieces of information every millisecond into our sensory memory. Our brains filter this. It retrieves information from our long term memory to check the information we have received and help us to recognise and make sense of the information we are receiving.

Our sensory memory is exceptionally weak; information is instantly processed. So the angry looking bull in front of us represents danger – we flee. Our working memory is also weak. Studies suggest we can hold 3 or 4 things in our working memory for less than 20 seconds. Again, our brains are filters; sorting out the information we need to function effectively and “getting rid of”, or forgetting, anything which is superfluous or risks overloading us. This actually is a positive thing: we don’t want indecision to strike just at the moment we are threatened!

However, the good news is that our long term memory is exceptionally strong. Once you have learnt something properly, some studies have suggested you can remember it forever. Why do I often forget where I put my car keys two minutes ago, yet can still recite most of Queen’s Greatest Hits? Well, I’ve listened to Queen thousands of times over the last 15 years. Finding my car keys would be more useful, but my brain doesn’t quite work like that.

And so whilst our brains have an incredible memory, it doesn’t know what to learn and what not to learn. After all, how would learning the cycle of work for Plain Bob Doubles be helpful for survival?

Thus our brains are designed to filter out over-loading. So when we’re in the bell tower frantically reciting our blue line at the last minute, our brain is likely to feel overloaded. Seconds later, our short term memory is likely to chuck out that much needed information. (Try the following: read a short paragraph from a book. Close the text and count to 10 seconds. How much of the text can you recite?).

This is even more present, I think, for new ringers who have to contend with other things their brains will find overwhelming – like catching the sally and carrying out the mechanism of what a 3-4 dodge actually is.

What can we do about this?

The key is to transfer effectively information to our long term memory. Over 100 years ago, Ebbinghaus carried out an extensive study on how the memory works. His conclusions are still relevant to us today:


Ebbinghaus’ study suggested that less than one day after learning new information, over 20% of that knowledge was forgotten (some more recent studies have suggested that this is much higher). For those of us who are school teachers, this is scary! However, if you review that knowledge regularly and often (“topping up that information”) you will retain more of it. In other words, you need to transfer that knowledge to your very powerful long term memory. The other piece of good news is that the more you have stocked up in your long term memory, the easier it is to learn new things. So those experienced ringers who seem like they are learning something from scratch in the tower are actually relying on a wealth of “stocked up” memories which relate to the new information in front of them – they are simply making lots of connections to stuff they already know. And remember, those experienced ringers have greater headspace because they don’t have to think about how to catch their sally or they know without thinking what a 3-4 dodge is like.

What is effective learning?

Studies have consistently shown that to remember something, you have to think about it. So just looking at something isn’t an effective way of learning:

  • Write methods out (copy-cover-write-check is a useful technique)
  • Recite the cycle of work out loud and do so without the blue line in front of you
  • Teach someone else
  • Use online practice tools (apps such as Blueline offer practice)
  • Do so early and regularly (short but often is the advice)
  • Homework matters!

This article was originally published in the Ringing World

Arthur Reeves