Memory Retrieval: Why You Can't Remember the Movie You Just Watched

Brain scientists explained why many of us forget key plot lines, or even the endings, of movies or books we loved during memory retrieval.

By Abigail Cukier
Jun 17, 2021 7:00 PMSep 6, 2023 4:26 PM
People watching a movie together and being distracted by other thoughts
(Credit: Kellie Jaeger/Discover)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Apollo Creed knocks black-eyed Rocky Balboa to the mat. Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, pleads with him to stay down so the fight can end. Adrian walks into the arena as Rocky gets back up. Soon, the crowd is chanting Rocky’s name. And I … honestly cannot recall who wins the match.

I have seen every Rocky movie numerous times, which is why my husband and I were thrilled to introduce the original 1976 film to our kids. Somehow, though, I did not remember that the fight ends with a (spoiler alert!) split decision that gives Apollo Creed the victory.

Truth is, it’s not just Rocky. My husband and I have been sharing many classics with our kids, as well as more recent movies. During the viewings, he is constantly telling the kids, “Watch what’s going to happen next.” More often than not, I have no idea what’s about to come. This got me thinking: Why do I forget most of the movies I see? And how does my husband remember every detail?

The Science Behind Memory

David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says people differ in memory ability, just like any other skillset. “There are some people who are quite good at memory for certain kinds of events or certain kinds of facts. Someone else may be really good at putting names to faces or recalling everything they read off a page,” says Linden, the author of Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality.

At least I have that going for me. I am better than my husband at remembering birthdays and when big life events took place.

Individual aptitude aside, many factors affect how well we remember. For example, when you memorize your new home address, it can become difficult to recall your old address. This is called interference. Unless the old memory is recalled again, it might eventually fade. “You have seen many other movies since that [particular] movie. All of these other movies have the potential to interfere with your memory of that original event,” says Sean Kang, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Melbourne.

Repeated similar experiences, such as watching many movies or reading many books, can also render your memories generic. Let’s say you’ve been to the beach 100 times. You are not going to remember the details of each visit — only when something significant or different happened. Linden says this blended memory is more helpful in terms of guiding decisions and future behavior than having a perfect recording of each trip to the beach. So, when someone asks if you want to go to the beach, you can rely on that blended memory to know you would enjoy it. In this way, not remembering everything is actually useful.

Why then, do some people manage to remember all the details?

Read More: Is a Photographic Memory Real?

Wandering Thoughts and Memory Retrieval

“How well you pay attention when you watch a movie or read a book can affect how well you remember,” says Kathleen Hourihan, an associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “If you are checking IMDb because you want to look up an actor you recognize, that is going to take away from encoding the information.”

This rings true for me, especially when it comes to reading — another area where my husband frustratingly remembers more than me. When I am reading, my thoughts often wander and I sometimes speed through certain pages. My husband is a slower, more deliberate reader.

He also likely takes more opportunities to retrieve information after the experience, Kang says. “He thinks about the plot twist, what he liked. Maybe he has conversations about the movie with friends,” he says. “We think of memory as getting something in, but getting the stuff out is equally important.” Calling on a memory again and again helps consolidate that memory. Teachers often use frequent, short quizzes to get students to recall what they have learned. This promotes retention.

In today’s world, retrieval has become less necessary because of all the info at our fingertips. For example, when recognizing an actor in a movie, most people won’t bother searching their memory for where they’ve seen him, since they can just look it up. “Give people the opportunity to use Google when answering questions and they are more likely to give up [and turn to their device] than rely on their memory,” Hourihan says.

Read More: Why Do Some People Always Remember Their Dreams, While Others Almost Never Do?

How To Improve Working Memory

When a friend calls to talk about a movie or book you enthusiastically recommended, do you wish you could actually discuss the details? Here are three tips to help you remember.

General Mindfulness

Paying attention is an important part of encoding, which is the first step to creating and storing a memory. This is why some researchers say mindfulness can help improve recall. A 2016 PLoS One study found that mindfulness training helped improve episodic memory, the kind that helps you remember specific events.

To improve mindfulness, the Mindfulness Center at Brown University recommends sitting and focusing on your breath for a few minutes daily or checking in with yourself a few times each day to see what you are thinking and feeling and what body sensations you notice.

Undivided Attention

“While you are watching a movie, if you are always thinking about other stuff or looking at your phone, not taking time to reflect, this could be why you are not remembering,” says Kathleen Hourihan, associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

How much you can relate to what you see also improves the likelihood of remembering. So, thinking about what you see, like asking if you would have made the same choices as a character, helps that information stick in your memory.

Join a Book Club

Thinking about a movie you just saw or a book you just read helps you retrieve that information, which helps strengthen your memory, says Sean Kang, cognitive psychologist at the University of Melbourne. So, spending a few minutes contemplating the movie you saw the day before or talking to your book club about the novel you just finished can help.

Read More: How Naps Improve Memory Performance

Netflix and Null: The Spacing Effect

People are also consuming information in ways that may make recall even more difficult. One hurdle is what experts call the spacing effect. In a paper on spaced repetition, Kang highlights how leaving time between studying and reviewing the same info improves learning, compared to cramming it all in close together. Kang says at least 254 studies have showed that spacing out review is far better for helping recall verbal information.

(Credit: Kellie Jaeger/Discover)

This might be because repeating an item reminds the learner of when it happened before prompting retrieval, or the act of trying to recall info. That practice, like opening a filing cabinet in your brain, enhances memory. But if the repetitions are too close together and the event is still on your mind, you’re bypassing the retrieval process, which can hinder long-term retention.

Read More: How Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder May Contribute to Superior Memory

How Do Fatigue and Attention Impact Memory?

Researchers are also considering how fatigue and reduced attention play into our rapid-fire consumption habits. We regularly scroll from one story to the next, marathon through a TV series late at night or pack as many books as possible into a single beach trip. Binge watching is a prime example.

Participants in a 2017 study watched a TV series at three different rates: one episode a week, one per day or all six episodes in a single sitting. (The show was the BBC America drama, The Game.) All viewers completed content quizzes one day, seven days and 140 days after watching the season. One day after the show, binge watchers scored highest on the quiz. But after 140 days, they scored lower than the weekly viewers. Binge watchers also reported enjoying the show less than people who watched it daily or weekly.

That begs the question of whether enjoying a story hinges on recalling every detail. Linden says no — which is good news for me and fellow detailforgetters out there. “You don’t have to remember all the plot details for it to have made an impression on you and to have changed you in some way,” he says.

While most of us think of memory as that thing we use to remember explicit facts and events, the majority of our memories and how we encode experiences are actually subconscious. So, if you were attacked by a dog as a kid, your heart may race when you are near one — even if you don’t remember the attack. “It still leaves a trace behind,” says Linden.

While it would be nice to discuss the specifics of something I saw or read, the experiences definitely have an impact — the satisfaction of finishing a really great book or fond memories of going to the movies with my brother. That might be even better than remembering that Rocky finally beats Apollo in Rocky II. At least … I think that’s how it ends?

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Discover magazine as "Cinema Amnesia." Subscribe for more stories like these.

Read More: The Heady Neuroscience Behind 'Paying Attention'

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.