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This is why it's so hard to remember details from TV shows you're watching

And also why you can never remember books you've read

This is why it's so hard to remember details from TV shows you're watching
30 January 2018

We’re not remembering stuff anymore. Hang on, did we already say that? No idea. But, like, stuff: we aren’t remembering it, because of (a) what we’ve got access to, (2) the sheer amount of stuff we’re trying to absorb and (d) what were we talking about?

A study at the University of Melbourne (where every day is a g’day) found that binge-watchers remembered far less about TV shows in the long-term than people who watched one episode a day or one episode a week. 

Participants were shown the 2014 BBC six-part Cold War series The Game - we don’t remember that show at all, to be honest - either one episode weekly, one episode daily, or the whole lot in one six-hour, Brian Cox-filled binge. When quizzed about it immediately, the binge-viewers knew the most, but when it was followed up 140 days later, they really struggled. Weekly viewers remembered least at first, but then forgot less than the others, scoring highest out of the three groups in the 140-days-later test.

Why is bingeing messing with your memories, then? There’s a thing known as the ‘forgetting curve’, which is as good an idea as scientists have of how memories of an event (or TV show) deteriorate over time if they aren’t accessed - remembering a weekly show in the time between episodes can reinforce and consolidate those memories. 

The study compares it to practice, which feels like it makes sense - spend an afternoon learning the piano and it won’t stick with you as much as with someone who has six one-hour lessons on a weekly basis. Watch a whole season of Game of Thrones in one go, and it’s a good day. Watch it as it’s broadcast and spend the week in-between thinking about it, and you’ll still be chuckling at Hot Pie’s antics when you’re a hundred.

(Does anyone remember The OA? Lots of people watched The OA in one big Netflix binge a year or so ago. Try to remember anything about The OA now, other than that you want the time back. You can’t do it. The OA might never have happened.)

It’s the same with books, too. Books you blitz through really quickly are more easily forgotten than ones you draw out over the course of a couple of months.

There’s also a more general way in which our memories are changing. Recall memory, where people can regurgitate huge streams of note-perfect information, is arguably less important in the modern world than it previously might have been, now that we have access to unfathomable amounts of information in our pockets at all times. We know we don’t need to remember every detail of a plot, or the name of every minor character, so we don’t. With your memory’s external hard drive out there in the ether, what becomes more important is recognition memory - remembering what the information was, and where it is, and how to get at it. 

Now, where are our keys?