I have occasionally have senior moments therefore I was interested to read about this recent study in the excellent Psyblog journal. Authors of the study, Doctors Blake Richards and Paul Frankland from the University of Toronto, argue that simply remembering everything that happens to us is not the point of memory. In fact forgetting could be the key to having a better memory.

Dr Blake Richards, summarised that

“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. In fact, the brain works hard to forget the right things. 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.”

The brain forgets by weakening the connections between synapses and through the creation of new neurons. The new neurons overwrite and ‘delete’ the old memories as they create new networks. This may help explain why children forget so much: they are producing so many new neurons in the hippocampus.

The process of forgetting is beneficial because it helps us dump outdated or useless information, said Dr Richards:

“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.”

Our memories help to guide us in making intelligent decisions in the situations we find ourselves and forgetting helps us to generalise old information to new situations. In other words, we get the gist but forget the details and use this to inform future decisions. What we remember and what we forget comes down partly to the environment we are in.

Dr Richards concluded:

“One of the things that distinguishes an environment where you’re going to want to remember stuff versus an environment where you want to forget stuff is this question of how consistent the environment is and how likely things are to come back into your life.”

The study was originally published in the journal Neuron (Richards & Frankland, 2017)

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