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How Crisis Conditions Impact Training Recall: Insights from Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve

In high-stress situations like emergencies, it’s often observed that even well-trained individuals can struggle to recall critical information and skills. This phenomenon, where people forget their training precisely when they need it most, can be explained through the lens of the Forgetting Curve, a concept first introduced by the 19th-century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Understanding the Forgetting Curve

Ebbinghaus's pioneering research on memory and recall introduced the world to the Forgetting Curve, which illustrates the decline of memory retention over time. This curve shows that without any attempt to retain information, the sharpest decline in recall occurs just hours after learning, with a significant amount of information lost after just one day.

The Forgetting Curve is exponential, starting steep and gradually levelling off, suggesting that our brains purge what it considers extraneous information unless the information is consciously reviewed and reinforced. In practical terms, the information learned in training can vanish quickly unless it is effectively cemented into long-term memory.

Training Under Stress

During a crisis, the body's physiological response is to enter a "fight or flight" mode, driven by the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This response, while beneficial for immediate physical survival, can impede our ability to access complex thoughts and learned behaviours stored in memory. Under stress, the brain prioritises immediate, instinctive actions over deliberate, learned responses, making it difficult to recall training.

Strategies to Combat Forgetting Under Stress

1. Repetition and Reinforcement

To combat the natural tendency to forget, training programs must incorporate frequent, spaced repetition of key information and skills. This approach aligns with Ebbinghaus’s findings that repeated exposure to information over time embeds it more deeply into long-term memory, making it more resistant to the effects of stress.

2. Realistic Simulations

Training exercises that simulate real-life stress can condition the brain to access the necessary information under pressure. These simulations help bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, particularly in a crisis.

3. Mindfulness and Stress Management

Training individuals in mindfulness and stress management techniques can also be beneficial. Techniques such as controlled breathing and meditation can help lower overall stress levels, potentially improving recall in critical situations.

4. Cognitive Load Reduction

Simplifying the amount of information that needs to be recalled during an emergency can help. This involves streamlining procedures and using aids such as checklists, which can provide quick prompts and cues in high-pressure scenarios.


The challenge of forgetting under stress is a critical consideration for training programs, especially for roles like emergency responders, military personnel, and medical professionals. By understanding and applying the principles of Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve, organisations can enhance the retention of training and improve performance during crises. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that when a crisis strikes, the decline in recall is minimised, and individuals are better equipped to apply their training effectively.

Richard Stephenson
Written by Richard Stephenson
08 May 2024
Richard is the CEO of crisis management software provider YUDU Sentinel. Richard has run public listed companies, mid-market private equity investments and tech start-ups. His professional skills include digital strategy, crisis management, risk and digital document publishing.