Forgetting Things Could Actually Be Making You Smarter

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Do you always blame yourself for being forgetful? Here is what new research suggest about forgetfulness.

This phenomenon could be caused by a safety mechanism in the brain made to ensure we’re not overloaded with information. More so, it’s a healthy part of the brain’s functionality.

That might come as a relief if you’re always forgetting where you left your house keys, but it could also teach us more about how the brain operates, something researchers are still trying to get .

According to the two researchers from the University of Toronto in Canada, memory isn’t intended to help transmit the most accurate information, but rather the most useful information that can aid humans in making smart decisions in the future.

“It’s important that the brain forgets unused information and rather focuses things that’s going to help make decisions in the our everyday life,” explains one of the researchers , Blake Richards. 

Richards and his colleague Paul Frankland reviewed previously published papers adopting various methods to the idea of memory. Some looked at the neurobiology of remembering, or persistence, while the rest focused on the neurobiology of forgetting, or transience.

“We find plenty of evidence from recent research that there are mechanisms that promote memory loss, and that these are different from those responsible for storing information,” says Frankland.

The researchers found proof of the deliberate weakening of the synaptic connections between neurons that help to encode memories, as well as signs that new neurons overwriting existing memories, so that they will be difficult to access.

So what could be the reason the brain spends time trying to make us forget ?

Richards and Frankland think there are two reasons.

One, forgetting helps us adjust to new situations by letting go of unimportant memories  – so if your favourite coffee shop has relocated to the other side of town, forgetting its old location helps you remember the new one.

Second, forgetting enables us to generalise past events to help us make future plans, a concept known in artificial intelligence as regularisation . If you just remember the main gist of your previous visits to the coffee shop rather than every little detail, then it’s less work for your brain to work out how to behave in your next visit.

“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision,” says Richards.

The researchers also think that our environment influences the rate at which we forget things, with a faster pace of change requiring a faster pace of forgetting too.

One experiment mentioned in the paper that Frankland was also a part of involved mice looking for a maze. When the location of the maze was moved, mice that were drugged not to remember the old location discovered the new one faster.

It is very certain that not remembering details we need to remember too often is a frustrating experience – and maybe the sign of more serious problems – but the new research suggests a certain level of forgetfulness is actually a built-in mechanism designed to make us smarter.

Perhaps that’s something to bring to the table at the next trivia night at your local bar.

“We always idealise the person who can smash a trivia game, but the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972,” says Richards.

“The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given. One sure way in helping you achieve that is being able to forget some information.”

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