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How Forgetting Helps Memory

Sometimes Forgetting Helps Memory A new article on memory discusses an often overlooked component of memory – that under some circumstances, forgetting plays an important role in the function of memory.

The new study is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

It’s time for forgetting to get some respect, said Ben Storm, Ph.D., a professor at University of Illinois-Chicago. “Memory is difficult. Thinking is difficult.”

Memories and associations accumulate rapidly. “These things could completely overrun our life and make it impossible to learn and retrieve new things if they were left alone, and could just overpower the rest of memory,” he said.

Thankfully, this does not occur.

“We’re able to get around these strong competing inappropriate memories to remember the ones we want to recall.”

Storm and other psychological scientists are trying to understand how our minds select the right things to recall—if someone’s talking about beaches near Omaha, Nebraska, for example, you will naturally suppress any knowledge you’ve collected about Omaha Beach in Normandy.

In the study, participants were given a list of words that had some sort of relation to each other. They might have been asked to memorize a list of birds, for example.

In the next part of the test, they were required to do a task that required remembering half the birds. “That’s going to make you forget the other half of the birds in that list,” Storm says.

That might seem bad—it’s forgetting. “But what the research shows is that this forgetting is actually a good thing.”

That is, people who are good at forgetting information they don’t need are also good at problem-solving and at remembering something when they’re being distracted with other information.

There are plenty of times when forgetting makes sense in daily life.

‘“Say you get a new cell phone and you have to get a new phone number—do you really want to remember your old phone number every time someone asks what your number is?” Storm said.

Or where you parked your car this morning—it’s important information today, but you’d better forget it when it comes time to go get your car for tomorrow afternoon’s commute.

“We need to be able to update our memory so we can remember and think about the things that are currently relevant,” he said.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

How Forgetting Helps Memory

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). How Forgetting Helps Memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 19 Oct 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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