Preserving and forgetting in the human brain

Robert H. Logie (Lead / Corresponding author), Maria Wolters, Elaine H. Niven

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Citations (Scopus)


Humans have evolved to be very efficient at managed preservation of what is necessary to preserve. Humans are also extremely efficient at forgetting trivial or irrelevant details when they are no longer needed. Indeed, managed preservation and forgetting could be viewed as a set of human ‘superpowers’ achieved through use of a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, highly effective contextualisation, aggregation, organisation, summarisation and reconstruction of key features of experiences. But humans are poor at preservation of large amounts of detail. Typically, memories are partially reconstructed during the retrieval process, and this reconstruction process can sometimes lead to false memories. Many of these strengths and limitations of human memory are well understood by human memory researchers, although important questions and uncertainties remain. In complete contrast, digital systems excel in preserving large amounts of detail, and are getting better at contextualisation. But they remain rather poor at systematic forgetting of irrelevant detail. Often, digital forgetting occurs by accident through disk crashes, incompatible upgrades of software and hardware, lost or stolen storage devices. Even if the data are still present and safely stored, insufficient indexing and poor information retrieval may result in those data effectively being forgotten. This chapter will provide a detailed overview of the state of the science of human memory, based on empirical studies and conceptual modelling. It will discuss how the human superpowers of managed preservation and forgetting are achieved, and show how a conceptual understanding of human memory function could be used to inspire the design of digital managed preservation and forgetting. It will argue that human-inspired digital forgetting is key for achieving a truly synergetic relationship between human and digital memory, and explore how such a synergetic relationship can address aspects of the paradox that massive investment in technology has not necessarily led to the expected increase in productivity (IT/productivity paradox). Next, we will describe an in-depth study of personal, digital photograph collections that were contributed by volunteer research participants. This study explored human management of photographic collections and contrasted it with managed preservation and forgetting of the same photo collection by an example digital system that incorporates automated conceptualisation and forgetting. The chapter will conclude with a summary of how understanding human cognitive function can help to inspire more useful digital storage systems that offer reliable and usable tools to complement and support human memory rather than attempt to replace it.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPersonal Multimedia Preservation
Subtitle of host publicationRemembering or Forgetting Images and Video
EditorsVasileios Mezaris, Claudia Niederee , Robert H. Logie
Place of PublicationSwitzerland
Number of pages37
ISBN (Electronic)9783319734651
ISBN (Print)9783319734644
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Publication series

NameSpringer Series on Cultural Computing
ISSN (Electronic)2195-9056


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