Shortform Amnesia – Do you remember what you watched? 

“You Won’t Finish Reading This Article” is a column focused on YOU and the device you are holding in your hand right now. This piece of glass has changed the world, and it may have changed the way we think.  

This edition is about why you don’t remember every video you watch.

Life is short, and so is your memory.

If you were forced to write down every single video you watched today, most people would come up blank. At first, you might be like, “Hey, I remember this really funny video where this one toddler fell over” or “I remember this video of interesting facts I sent to my friend.” But if you scroll through TikTok or any other social media platform as much as me, you’ll know that it’s practically impossible to remember everything.

But why is that the case? Surely, you’d be able to remember the past couple of hours pretty clearly, right? 

The simple answer is, we can’t remember everything, at least, not for long. In a very broad sense, there are two types of memories – short-term and long-term.

For example, if you were asked to remember ten words in a particular order, the average person – without any special methods – could only accurately remember those words for the period of that test. After the test was over, your brain would quickly forget the information you just learnt.  As the information you just used is no longer needed for future decision-making, the brain quickly forgets the details of that event. This is an example of how short-term memory works.

On the other hand, long term memories, memories which you can clearly remember long after that event is over, works very differently.

Current research in the field of neuroscience has identified a crucial reason why certain memories are kept by our brains; their theory is reward-motivated memory encoding. Simply, our brains prioritise ‘long-term’ memory creation when a situation rewards us. This is because the memory can be used later to encourage you to do something similar to get the same reward. In a study out of the US, researchers found that participants who were offered monetary rewards for correctly remembering something, consistently remembered things better because their brains created higher-quality memories to ensure future rewards.

So that brings us back to the two seemingly normal examples I shared at the start.

The first example, the video of the toddler falling over, is something that was funny – maybe it made you laugh out loud- and in that very moment the happiness from it positively impacted your day. That made you feel good, and your brain is wired to remember that watching videos like that will reward you emotionally. The algorithms that drive these endless scrolling apps understand this and try to show you similar videos, so you stay on the app longer.

Likewise, the second example – sharing an interesting video with a friend – is another action that rewarded you. The video may have created a positive interaction with that friend, where you connected with each other. Your brain will remember that moment, so you will try to share more videos like this in search of a similar social reward in the future.

So that explains why we remember specific videos, but what about the rest of them? If the algorithms of these social media apps are so good, why don’t they just consistently show rewarding videos?

This is a very hard question to answer as these algorithms are highly advanced, secretive, and are constantly being tweaked, but here are my personal theories:

  1. It is hard to pinpoint what type of content will reward you, as there are numerous factors which can’t all be accounted for when it selects the next video you will watch. Afterall, the algorithm isn’t perfect.
  1. The algorithm inherently shows you less rewarding videos as sort of a ‘filler’ content to keep you searching for the next reward. The algorithm tries to make good videos feel more rewarding.

In either situation, bad or mediocre videos are a thing that we must endure and swipe away, in order to get to the good stuff.

The true answer to why you don’t remember what you watched is unclear, because the answer relies on you; your individual emotions, your personal situation and what you consider rewarding. Sometimes, not remembering what you watched may be the result of a mindless scrolling session when you tried to relax and distract yourself from your current problems. In another situation it may be because the algorithm failed to find you enough rewarding videos. And in another, it may be because you were distracted while watching, and your full attention wasn’t on the content you were scrolling through.

Whatever your situation is, not remembering everything is not a bad thing, because not everything is meant to be remembered.

Abishai Sujith (he/him) is a QUT student (Bachelor of Urban Development) and a content creator. With a keen eye for the intersection of technology and everyday life, he delves into the impact of emerging technologies. Abishai is driven by a passion to understand how our daily lives are shaped by design, construction and technology.

Abishai Sujith
Abishai Sujith
Articles: 5

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