Why a Little Forgetfulness Is Actually a Good Thing
A little memory lapse may actually be a sign that your brain is working. Here's what you need to know
Quit kicking yourself for not remembering where you put your keys, or for spacing out on what the U.S. Constitution’s Third Amendment says. Those bursts of forgetfulness are actually good for your brain.
A study in the journal Neuron says forgetting information isn’t a failure on your brain’s part. In fact, just the opposite is true—letting go of some information actually helps your mind work better. Assuming you aren’t putting yourself at risk of dementia, a little forgetfulness is nothing to worry about.
The research review concluded your brain’s main goal isn’t to remember every little detail of your life. Its bigger focus is making good decisions in the future.
Because there’s new information constantly flooding the brain, remembering everything would be totally overwhelming. To make a decision, you’d need to wade through tons of useless details. To remember the stuff that’s actually important, your mind needs to let go of some of the fluff, says study co-author Blake Richards, PhD, assistant professor in the Montreal Neurological Institute and the School of Computer Science at McGill University and a Core Faculty Member at the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute.
“It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world,” Richards says. So don’t feel bad when you can’t help your kids with their math homework. If you haven’t done algebra since high school, there’s no reason your brain would have felt the need to remember how to solve those equations (or even what the heck a polynomial is).
Forgetting doesn’t mean your brain is messing up. In fact, the mind actually makes a point of actively losing track of those little details. New neurons in the hippocampus—the part of your brain responsible for memory—encourage your brain to forget, says study co-author Paul Frankland, University of Toronto associate professor and senior scientist of neurosciences and mental health at The Hospital for Sick Children.
“We find plenty of evidence from recent research that there are mechanisms that promote memory loss, and that these are distinct from those involved in storing information,” he says. So don’t worry—you won’t suddenly forget the route to work just because you’ve learned the way to a new restaurant. (Here are the signs your family member’s ‘forgetfulness’ is actually Alzheimer’s disease.)
If the brain didn’t make a habit of forgetting, you’d start to confuse yourself. After all, it’s hard to keep up with a constantly changing world (like the millionth place you’ve set down your keys). “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. Instead, your brain mashes all those specific memories into generalized ones to make it easier.
Bottom line: Quit getting jealous of that person who seems to have memorized the Internet. “We always idealize 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 the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information.” But to avoid memory loss that actually is a problem, adopt these habits that prevent Alzheimer’s.
- Neuron: "The Persistence and Transience of Memory"
- Blake Richards, PhD, assistant professor in the Montreal Neurological Institute and the School of Computer Science at McGill University and a Core Faculty Member at the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute
- Paul Frankland, University of Toronto associate professor and senior scientist of neurosciences and mental health at The Hospital for Sick Children