Most of the research in neuroscience around memory is around what makes a memory and how to hold on to it. The opposite of remembering is forgetting, and an intriguing concept from recent research is that forgetting may actually be good for you.
Without your memory, who are you? That’s a really difficult question to answer because your memories are essentially, you! Apart from the physical changes to your body, what makes the you of today, different to the you of everyday before, is your memory. Losing your memory would be like losing you. But forgetting. That’s actually beneficial to us.
Remembering the past and imagining the future activates similar patterns of brain activity.
Every time you conjure up a memory, your brain creates it from scratch using your own unique style. Memory is just an illusion designed to help you live your life. When you sleep, your brain crafts memories into the most useful version for you. Therefore, memory is not reliable. It’s what suits you. This means that forgetting is really a good thing.
Why Forgetting is Good For You
How can two people recall an event so differently? When you think about an argument with your significant other, you might wonder how their recollection might be so different to yours. This is because people remember things differently based on the way their brain is wired. Whether you remember more facts or emotions for example, is determined by the physical links in certain parts of the brain.
What happens to your memories while you sleep? There are many incredibly important things that happen while you sleep. One of them is creating memories. You don’t need sleep to create a memory, but during sleep your brain determines what goes into long-term storage. It also determines which parts of a memory to retain and it even links new memories with established networks of existing memories. Essentially, during sleep, your brain is deciding what not to remember as much as what to remember.
Is technology making your memory worse? With the invention of the internet and advent of the smartphone, it is even easier now than ever to outsource your memories. You no longer need to remember your mum’s mobile phone number, and if you want to know how many eyes a bee has, you just google it (it’s 5 by the way — I googled it). The same is true of photos and videos of the latest Queen and Elton John concert you just went to. You might think that this will help you remember the event, but research shows that while you might have footage to share with the people who read your blog, you actually remember less of the event.
The real purpose of memory. In the famous case of a patient by the name of KC in the 1980’s, who lost his episodic memory in a motorcycle accident, it was discovered that not only did he lose his memory of personal experiences, but he also lost the ability to imagine the future. It was learned that remembering the past and imagining the future activated similar patterns of brain activity. Both require the ability to generate visual images in the mind’s eye. Therefore, a major purpose of remembering the past is to be able to imagine the future, and plan for it.
How to choose which memories to forget. You might know you can strengthen your memory through practice. But you can also strengthen your ability to forget. Simply “pushing a memory out of your head” is enough to forget it. And this is the case in suppressing a memory. But there are far more effective and safer methods of forgetting. Performing a visual task immediately after an experience can reduce flashbacks of that experience; while learning to associate a particular sound with the instruction to forget something can help you to forget a memory when they are played at the same time.
Flexing your memory muscle is very beneficial and most research into memory is associated with remembering. However, research into the field of forgetting is growing and demonstrating that learning how to forget can be a very important and valuable skill.
Because remembering the past and imagining the future activates similar patterns of brain activity, you can see how it could be beneficial to forget the past in order to imagine a more positive future in some cases.
Do you think it’s important to forget, or do you think you should remember everything?
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