Why Forgetfulness is Good For Your Brain

We all forget little things: where we put our keys, a friend’s birthday, what we need at the grocery store, where we parked our car—the list is endless. Yet scientists say that if we used just one tenth of the estimated 90 billion neurons in our brain, we should be able to store one billion separate memories. Why don’t we remember everything”?

It turns out that forgetfulness is actually a good thing, at least according to two researchers from the University of Toronto. Essentially, it’s better that we don’t remember everything because this allows us to adapt to change. Anthony Wagner, who headed the Stanford Memory Lab, explained that “If you didn’t forget, you’d have this sea of interference that would make it hard to figure out which bit of memory helps.”

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What is forgetfulness?

Normal forgetfulness is different from dementia, although progressive forgetfulness is a sign of this serious form of memory loss. According to Harvard Medical School, forgetfulness is a normal part of the aging process, and there are two common “forgetful” conditions.

  • Absentmindedness, which typically occurs because we are preoccupied or not focusing on something, so we forget it; and

  • Transience, which is when we forget some memories over time. It is referred to as the “neurobiology of forgetting.”

Forgetfulness is healthy

We have already mentioned that it’s not good to remember everything because that would only overburden our mind and not allow us to make critical adjustments to new circumstances and new things to learn and remember. But there is another advantage to forgetfulness.

According to Richards and Frankland, who authored a new study on the persistence and transcience of memory, forgetting also helps you generalize. That is, the brain conveniently loses details about a situation or memory so that it can gain generalizability. Generally, “you need to abstract the most important bits out and let go of the details.” They emphasize and argue that “transience enhances flexibility, by reducing the influence of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making, and prevents overfitting to specific past events, thereby promoting generalization.”

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Richards and Frankland go on to point out that “the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time…[but rather] to optimize decision-making.” Therefore, normal forgetfulness (transience) “is as important as persistence in mnemonic [something that makes remembering easier] systems” and thus healthy.

If you want a way to help clear out excess or extraneous memories that may be clogging up your brain, Richards recommends exercise, since physical activity boosts the number of neurons in the hippocampus, the brain region intimately involved with memory. Will exercise cause you to lose some memories? Yes, but he insists that “they’re exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions.”

Amit DJ et al. Storing infinite numbers of patterns in a spin-glass model of neural networks. Physical Review Letters 1985 Sep 30; Lett 55, 1530
Harvard Medical School. Forgetfulness—7 types of normal memory problems.
MacMillan A. Forgetful? It might actually make you smarter, study says. CNN 2017 Jun 30
Richards BA, Frankland PW. The persistence and transience of memory. Neuron 2017 Jun 21; 94(6): 1071-84

By Deborah Mitchell| August 01, 2017
Categories:  Live

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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