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We forget things, frequently and that’s O.K.

Because marvelous as the human brain is, it isn’t designed for us to remember everything. It would be a huge waste of valuable neural real estate if it did.

Forming, retrieving and forgetting memories is a continuous process. Your brain is bombarded with incoming sensory information that is filtered and assessed for relevance, and mostly gets discarded.

Robert Kraft Professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University believes the purpose of memory is to help us to make better sense of the world rather than to remember. This makes sense when you consider that while there are some items we set out to learn and remember (especially if you have an exam looming), many of our daily activities are about helping ourselves understand what is going on in a meeting, during a conversation or while watching a Ted talk.

Taking this perspective rather than focusing on the flukiness and imperfections of our memory allows us to reflect on the usefulness of forgetting.

How forgetting works.

Your brain’s plasticity, its ability to create and strengthen synaptic connections between existing neurons is a two-way street. You have an inbuilt system that allows those connections no longer required to disappear.

Like deadheading a rose bush to strengthen and enhance the efficiency of those branches that remain, synaptic pruning is the term given to the process where neuronal dendrites and axons are removed.

Pruning is very important from a developmental perspective to allow the brain to mature into its lean efficient adult form. It’s been estimated that by the age of 10, 50% of all synapses present at the age of 2 have been eliminated.

Forgetting is the brain’s way of decluttering.

Remembering where you parked the car a week last Tuesday, or what you bought in the supermarket on special last month is unlikely to be useful material for the future. With busy lives and many thoughts bumbling round our heads it’s good to know we have this recycling process for getting rid of unwanted or unneeded memories to free up more headspace for the new. This is adaptive forgetting.

This is what helps your brain to keep up with what’s current.
One study in Nature Neuroscience revealed how old information is often pushed out to avoid overcrowding. While holding on to those bell-bottom trousers and jackets with large shoulder pads might be good for the next fancy-dress party, they do take up a lot of mental wardrobe space.

Having this process available to us is reassuring because it means while your mind might sometimes feel full to overflowing, you won’t ever exceed your total storage limit.

Why hyperthymestic syndrome is something best avoided.

We curse our memory when it lets us down, but it’s far worse not being able to forget.
This condition was first described in 2005 in relation to a woman who was able to remember whatever she had done on any given date and consequently spent a lot of time recalling her past in great detail and accuracy. While seemingly impressive, this ability interferes with the normal formation and degradation of other memories.

I met someone several years ago at one of my workshops, who said she hated one aspect of her memory. She could remember the phone number and address of all every friend, acquaintance and family member that she had ever come into contact with, and yearned to be able to forget at least some of that information.

Is there something you can do to help forget and remember better?

Yes, get enough good quality uninterrupted sleep.

Sleep is the time that your brain consolidates long-term memory but is also the time when it practices active forgetting choosing which replays it wants to retain and which it doesn’t. It’s a bit like deciding which Netflix series you want to keep and which to ditch.

Your prefrontal cortex is highly involved in this filtering process and works closely with the hippocampus to determine which memory is most relevant and to enhance your ability to recall it when required.

Forgetting helps us to be better thinkers at work.

Doing great work requires us to think clearly, retain relevant information and forget the rest.

Rather than worrying about those normal lapses of memory, annoying as they are, looking after your cognition is best served by:

  • Paying better attention to what you consider important, because that is the first step towards creating memory.
  • Getting good at filtering. Mental overwhelm reduces your brain’s ability to retain clarity of thought and is helped by prioritising and thinking critically.
  • Ensuring you get sufficient good quality uninterrupted sleep.

Having a better memory requires us to get good at forgetting.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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