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Forgetting: Recent advances in understanding memory loss

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Psychology as a discipline was established largely around studies investigating memory loss. Ribot’s Maladies de Memoire marks the beginning of a field now called cognitive neuroscience, and Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve arguably represents the birth of experimental psychology. These studies on forgetting, ...

Psychology as a discipline was established largely around studies investigating memory loss. Ribot’s Maladies de Memoire marks the beginning of a field now called cognitive neuroscience, and Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve arguably represents the birth of experimental psychology. These studies on forgetting, however, soon gave rise to theoretical notions that shifted the research focus to memory formation. The most persistent models were suggested early on. Ribot’s (1881) observations of amnesic patients led him to formulate the law of regression, which implies that memory coherence, or organization, and thus stability, progresses over time. Twenty years later, Müller & Pilzecker (1900) proposed that memory formation critically involves transient post-acquisition stabilization processes. Both these notions suggest that memory loss after learning will be an inverse function of time — the less complete the stabilization process, the more pronounced the memory deficit caused by some amnesia-inducing event. To this day, these insights form the core assumptions of consolidation theory. Over the years there have been numerous studies and findings in this area, reported in empirical articles, reviews and edited books. These have largely focused on the molecular, cellular, and systems aspects of consolidation, which have consequently been discussed in great depth and detail. Forgetting as a phenomenon in its own right, has been mainly investigated in cognitive psychology, but largely neglected by neuroscience. Importantly, there appear to be no coherent research programs that systematically study the psychology or neurobiology of forgetting.
Yet in most people’s lives complaints about unintended forgetting, in one form or another, are more prevalent than learning-related issues, and pathological forms of forgetting are devastating mental conditions for patients, their families, and society as a whole. Notwithstanding the century-old words of Burnham (1903) — “Not memory, but forgetting is the mystery”: the neuroscience of forgetting is either in its infancy or not present at all. Only a fraction of the numerous findings and theories on forgetting within the tradition of cognitive psychology have been described on the neurobiological level and have thus been linked to brain areas, neural circuitry, and molecular pathways. For example, while many cognitive psychologists maintain that non-pathological forgetting of long-term memory results either from decay or interference, the correlates of these presumed processes are not yet characterized on a neurobiological level, although similar processes have long been implemented in various neurocomputational models. The lack of a unifying and biologically plausible theoretical framework, and the absence of a well-defined scientific field devoted to forgetting contribute to the current situation, characterized by a widely dispersed and fragmented literature. One recent attempt to portray the state of forgetting research and to bring together various research traditions was put forward recently, in 2010, with the publication of the first edited book devoted to the topic.
It thus seems that a focus on forgetting has gained some momentum, and a Research Topic on this topic in Frontiers would further this movement and help tie this diverse field together. The contributions to this Research Topic should stimulate connections between neurobiology and behavior, i.e., neuroscience, cognitive, and experimental psychology, in one form or another. Reviews, opinions, positions, perspectives papers, and empirical papers would be welcome, as long as they focused on forgetting in humans or animal models. Behavioral empirical papers should discuss explicitly how the findings link to or impact the neurobiology of forgetting (brain structures, biologically plausible computations, etc.). Topics can comprise pathological as well as non-pathological forms of forg


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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