The idea that forgetting is important for the proper functioning of the brain and memory may sound counterintuitive. However, forgetting is part of the process of memorizing, and it does not make us any less smart.
Research shows that our brain has active mechanisms for forgetting. Both storing and losing memories are important for selecting and holding the most relevant information.
Forgetting helps to get rid of outdated information. Forgetting the details also helps to generalize past experiences into specific categories and thus create appropriate responses to similar situations in the future.
Forgetting details helps us to remember what needs to be remembered. You cannot craft a good text without deleting and proofreading its parts. As the saying goes, it is the empty space between the notes that makes the music.
When we talk about forgetting in this article, we are not discussing forgetting related to dementia or any other neurodegenerative disease. We are talking about forgetting processes that take place in a healthy individual and are essential for the healthy working of the brain.
On a daily basis, our brain is bombarded with information. Most of this information is more like noise that interferes with our decision-making and reduces the clarity of thoughts. Something needs to be done with this unneeded information. Forgetting improves the flexibility of the brain by removing outdated and unnecessary information. It also helps to streamline our memory by eliminating useless details and generalizing the concepts involved.
The function of memory is not to simply pass information through time, but also to optimize future decision-making.
Forgetting has a special function in the memorizing process. Remembering things has a cost for memory, thus forgetting irrelevant things is a cost-saving process. Our memory change is bi-directional. Some memories are made stronger, while others are either repressed or completely deleted. This makes the process of retrieving important information more efficient, as the brain uses fewer resources. Although forgetting may be frustrating, it has some fundamental benefits that aid our ability to remember.
Forgetting is also essential for our mental health. If this sounds like an exaggeration, think about depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Forgetting is essential for post-traumatic recovery. People with difficulties forgetting things are more prone to depression and psychological trauma. This is the reason why one of the key components of treating PTSD is memory repression or forgetting. Thus, the ability to forget can be used as a protective mechanism that helps to improve mental health.
Some researchers even believe that forgetting is related to ethics. If unjust thoughts continue to linger in your mind, they may finally result in unethical actions. Forgetting helps us to get rid of the wrong kind of thoughts and actions.
Forgetting is important for leaving behind previously experienced humiliations and continuing on with pride. Forgetting helps us to move towards the future, leaving the past behind. Both memory and forgetting contribute to the continuation of life, allowing us to forget the anger and pains of the past.
Forgetting helps us to construct our life’s plot as we want. Without forgetting unnecessary things, we cannot create a design of our liking. We cannot tell a beautiful story without omitting some secondary details.
For proper balance in life, both conservation of memory and forgetting are important. Yoni Van Den Eede aptly wrote that:
In this doubled Faustian bargain, we must ask ourselves towards which of the two sides we have been biased, and how we can reach a balance that combines enforcement with—consciously sought-after—limitations.
Kearney, R., Dooley, M., 1999. Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. Psychology Press.
Richards, B.A., Frankland, P.W., 2017. The Persistence and Transience of Memory. Neuron 94, 1071–1084. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.04.037.
Rossouw, P., 2013. PTSD & Voluntary Forgetting of Unwanted Memories. The Neuropsychotherapist 2, 122-124.
Schlesinger, H.J., 1970. The Place of Forgetting in Memory Functioning. J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 18, 358–371. doi: 10.1177/000306517001800206.
This guest article originally appeared on the award-winning health and science blog and brain-themed community, BrainBlogger: Why is Forgetting Good for Your Brain and Health?