- Not remembering much from a major musical event like a Taylor Swift concert is due to normal forgetting.
- We forget because we focus on experiencing our life events, not remembering them.
- Too much emphasis on memory creates unrealistic expectations and, ultimately, disappointment.
- Forgetting allows us to experience flow and to find joy in the familiar.
A recent and compelling news story in Time Magazine reports on people going to Taylor Swift concerts and not remembering much about the concert.1 The concert fans are then troubled by their lack of memory for the music and the uplifting experience of the concert. This effect is called “post-concert amnesia.”
The main explanation for this amnesia assumes that concertgoers are too excited to remember and that their arousal is too high to take in the concert events. A comparison has been made to the level of arousal experienced when running from a bear. Memory is diminished because the arousing event activates a complex of physiological responses necessary for responding effectively in a serious flight-or-fight situation.
A second explanation involves a tunneling of selective attention due to the “weapon effect,” which is what happens if a gun is pointed at us. In that frightening moment, we understandably sharpen our focus on the gun and don’t take in the surrounding information.
But a Taylor Swift concert is not like being chased by a bear or held up at gunpoint. It is not a circumstance for flight or fight. It is an exciting, joyous event with many happy people and beautiful music.
So why are fans forgetting much of their experience at Taylor Swift concerts?
Living Life Fully
The broadest reason we forget is that we focus on experiencing the world, not remembering it. We don’t set out to remember the events in our lives. We set out to experience and understand them.
We don’t walk along a nature trail with the goal of remembering the walk. We may remember some aspects of it, but only as a byproduct of experiencing. And we don’t go to a concert with the intention of remembering. We go to the concert to enjoy ourselves. Not remembering is actually a tribute to being in the moment and fully appreciating the music.
The situations in which we concentrate our attention on remembering are actually very limited–studying for an exam, preparing a presentation, and trying to learn people’s names. In everyday life, we do not focus on remembering what we do. We focus on doing.
Forgetting much of what happened at a concert is a normal response to living our lives fully.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two different selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self feels events in the present, whereas the remembering self looks back and reviews the memories of these events. Notably, we experience events consistently and fully throughout, but we remember events primarily in terms of a few selected moments. And what we’re left with is ultimately our remembering self.
We can choose to focus on remembering, but that would take attention away from enjoying the concert. This is the fundamental trade-off between experiencing and trying to remember. Our experiencing self and our remembering itself are at cross purposes. If we focus on remembering, then we can’t fully live the experience, and it won’t delight us as much.
It can be unsettling not to remember what we expected to remember. For a major musical event, we spend a lot of money on tickets and have a high level of anticipation. Afterward, we want to luxuriate in our memories of the concert. But if we place too much emphasis on memory, our expectations for remembering will be too high–and we'll be disappointed.
The Necessity of Forgetting
Forgetting is often thought of as a deficiency in memory. In fact, forgetting is its own system. Forgetting cleans out our apprehension of the world and allows us to see new things and appreciate the world more fully, unencumbered by memory.
Forgetting encourages what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, what Maslow called a peak experience. Losing oneself in the activities of the moment.
Forgetting also allows us to concentrate. It prevents intrusive memory images from remaining too long in consciousness–those off-topic thoughts that distract us. (What will I make for dinner? When did I last get my teeth cleaned? What was that funny line from the movie last night?) Forgetting disconnects the intrusion of memory, placing us more in the perceptual moment and pushing away memories that might distract us from the pleasure of enjoying the present.
Familiarity and Freshness
Some memory of Taylor Swift concerts remains, and the combination of some memory and a lot of forgetting allows us to continue enjoying her music. Our remembering gives us supportive familiarity; forgetting bestows a feeling of freshness. Forgetting a large portion of the concert sustains the joy we feel when we hear the songs later.
Final Words Before I Forget
We can walk into a room and forget the reason we came in because when we decided to go into that room, we had a specific action in mind, something to accomplish. But we were focused on carrying out that action, not remembering it. When we go to a concert, we attend to the events on stage and in the audience. We don't make special efforts to recall the concert in the rooms we inhabit after the concert is over.
Memory is profoundly important in retrospectively defining ourselves, but we don’t approach new events in the world with the goal of remembering them. We live our lives moving forward–appreciating, understanding, negotiating, confronting, loving, arguing, acting, reacting–and sometimes getting upset about not remembering.
Facebook image: Brian Friedman/Shutterstock
Haupt, A. (2023). Why You Can't Remember That Taylor Swift Concert All Too Well. Time Magazine.