Memory is an amazing thing. For years we remember what a passerby threw at us, what a friend’s reaction was to your new jacket or car – and yet we completely forget the really important things. Why does the brain work so selectively?

Human memory does work selectively – the first to study this question in the 20th century were German psychologist Kurt Lewin and his student Bluma Zeigarnik. They tried to understand what criteria and principles guide the human brain in choosing what is worth remembering and what is not.


The background to the study was amusing: the scientists went into a cafeteria near the University of Berlin to have lunch and noticed that the waiter remembered their order of 10 dishes without writing anything down. All of them subsequently appeared on the table – he hadn’t messed anything up.

When psychologists asked him what his phenomenal memory was, that he remembered all the customers’ orders, the waiter smiled and confessed that he really never got into trouble. When a curious couple interrogated him about the neighbouring tables, it turned out that he did indeed remember orders in detail, but only those that people had not yet paid for.

In other words, as soon as the customers left the cafe, the information about what they had just eaten would fly out of the waiter’s head
Zeigarnik suggested that the brain remembers only those events that are left unfinished – she subsequently conducted several experiments that proved this hypothesis.

Thus, if a certain action was interrupted and was not brought to a logical conclusion, there was no emotional discharge associated with it – it is literally imprinted in our memory. If the exit to the final occurred, the brain literally discarded what had happened – this happened as much as 1.8 times more often, compared to unfinished events.

The Zeigarnik effect became one of the biggest psychological discoveries of the century – numerous theoretical and experimental tests time after time confirmed the results of the first study.


By the way, this effect is often used in the shooting of TV projects – scriptwriters like to end the series at the most interesting place, so that the viewer waits for a new one.

In relationships, it is also easy to get “hooked” on such a needle: some pick-up artists masterfully start a conversation, and then abruptly cut it off. And now their passions are already swinging on emotional swings, wondering what she did wrong. If you practice this periodically, a person may become dependent on the manipulator.

By the way, psychologists and psychotherapists with this kind of addiction also fight with the help of the Zeigarnik effect – they find what a person considers incomplete, and help him to restore a complete picture. In this way you can at least try to “close the gestalt” in your head.