Forgetting to Remember: How the Brain Must Actively Forget

Forgetting to Remember: How the Brain Must Actively Forget

Forgetting to Remember: How the Brain Must Actively Forget

Did you ever happen to meet someone and then immediately forget their name? Do you never remember where you left your house keys, your bags, your smartphone? And every once in a while, right in the middle of a conversation, do you stop and wonder about what the person before you was even talking about? Relax, don’t be afraid: you’re not the only one. Welcome to the modern world.

There might be around 6 billion people with the same problem. In the frenzy and among the million things you do all day it is hard to remember everything. But you must already know that. What you might not know is that your memory has an incredible capacity, far greater than you ever imagined. And the key to mastering it trying not to remember more and more things: it’s learning to forget.


If information fights for space in your head, you should remember that only the most important things, and forget the least important, right? But, usually, in practice the reverse is the case. You are able to forget your anniversary, but you certainly remember the chorus of any song that has stuck in your head. Why do you forget what you want to remember? The answer has just been discovered, and goes against everything that has always been thought about memory. Science has always believed that one memory pulls the other, that is, remembering one thing helps to remember others. In many cases this is true, but a revolutionary study, which was published by English scientists and is causing controversy among experts, has discovered the opposite. When you remember something, it can have a negative consequence, weakening the other memories stored in the brain. «Weakening happens because remembering something is relearning it» explains psychologist James Stone of the University of Sheffield in his research about Information Theory.

Memories are formed by temporary, or permanent, connections between neurons. Suppose you get a piece of paper where a phone number is written. Your brain uses a group of neurons to process this information. To memorize it, it strengthens the links between them – and then, when you want to remember the number, activate those same neurons. But in this process part of the brain acts as if this information (phone number) is something entirely new, which must be learned. And this pseudo-learning ends up altering, even if only a little, the connections between neurons. This interferes with other groups of neurons, which keep other memories, and you get to the result: when you remember one thing, you forget others. But this is not the end of the world. Forgetting is necessary and good. Never forget that, okay?

Forgetting, actually, helps us navigate a world that is random and ever-changing. Your brain spends energy making us forget, by generating new neurons that “overwrite” the old ones, or by weakening the connections between neurons. For Blake Richards, a University of Toronto professor who studies the theoretical links between artificial intelligence and neuroscience, forgetting old information can make us more efficient: just think about all the times you’ve memorized the wrong name, and then later wished that you could remove that memory and stop confusing it with the right name.

Forgetting old information can also keep you from generalizing too much from one piece of information. Your brain tends to forget memories of things that happened (episodic memories) more quickly than general knowledge (semantic memories). In fact, episodic memories tend to vanish fairly quickly. «The brain’s principle is to forget everything except those instances that were highly salient» says Richards. Traumatic events like accidents, for example, stick with you because the brain wants you to keep in mind things that will help you survive. In the end, says Richards, we often take for granted that memory is a good thing, but «at the end of the day, our brains only do things if it was good for our survival from an evolutionary perspective».

Forgetfulness is the brain’s frontline strategy in processing incoming information. Forgetting is essential because the biological goal of the brain’s memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make good decisions. Forgetting is part of the process of memorizing and it does not make you any less smart. During daily routines, your brain is assaulted by too much information. Most of this information is more like noise that interferes with your decision-making and reduces the clarity of thoughts. Forgetting improves the flexibility of the brain by removing such outdated and unnecessary information. The function of memory is not to give information through time, but also to optimize your decision-making.

Forgetting helps you to build up your life’s story line as you want. Without forgetting unnecessary things, you cannot create a plot of your liking.