To improve memory and learning, the brain forgets things on purpose

Traditionally, forgetting names, skills, events or information is often thought of as purely negative — a passive decay.

However unintuitive it may seem, research suggests that forgetting plays a positive role in the function of the brain. It can actually increase long-term retention, information retrieval, and performance.

Dozens of research shows how the brain acquires and stores information and how we remember what we learn. “In the past century, memory research focused primarily on understanding how information can be successfully remembered,” says Nikolai Axmacher, Head of the Neuropsychology Department in Bochum. “However, forgetting is crucial for emotional wellbeing, and it enables humans to focus on a task.”

How the brain forgets hasn’t received nearly as much attention. We place a lot of emphasis on remembering things, people, and events. Forgetting can be frustrating as we age. But you can age smartly, and slowly.

“The vast majority of the things that are happening to me in my life — the conscious experience I’m having right now — I’m most likely not going to remember when I’m 80,” said Michael Anderson, a memory researcher at the University of Cambridge, who has been studying forgetting since the 1990s. “How is it that the field of neurobiology has actually never taken forgetting seriously?” he adds.

Everyday failures of memory should not be taken personally. Most forgetting is part of healthy memory functioning. Forgetting is not necessarily a sign of a faulty memory.

The brain forgets to enhance mental performance

It’s more human to forget. We forget much of what we read, watch, think, and encounter directly in the world. (Of course, we also remember many important experiences). An intelligent memory system needs forgetting.

Our brains are used to sorting out what’s important and ignoring the rest. It may sound counterintuitive, but forgetting is important for the active functioning of the brain and memory. It’s a gradual process though. The brain learns what is important and what isn’t based on how you use information — it tries to remember as much as possible at first, but gradually forgets most things when they become irrelevant.

“Without forgetting, we would have no memory at all,” says Oliver Hardt, who studies memory and forgetting at McGill University in Montreal. “Forgetting serves as a filter,” he said. “It filters out the stuff that the brain deems unimportant.”

Both storing and losing memories are important for selecting and holding the most relevant information. The brain is constantly optimizing itself to help you retrieve relevant information. Think of it like a little garbage collector running around in your brain, forgetting things that aren’t frequently used or depended on.

“People who are better able to prune away irrelevant events are also better able to remember pertinent events, a phenomenon known as adaptive forgetting,” writes Robert N. Kraft, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University. “It allows us to experience the world more fully and immediately. It helps us manage the painful events in our lives. And it encourages us to remember what’s important,” adds Robert.

Forgetting is necessary for maintaining a smarter and healthy brain. Without forgetting our brains would be inefficient because we would always be swamped with unnecessary and sometimes painful memories.

Forgetting improves the flexibility of the brain by removing outdated and unnecessary information. Remembering things has a cost for memory, thus forgetting irrelevant things is a cost-saving process for your brain.

Think about depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Forgetting is essential for post-traumatic recovery. People with difficulties forgetting things are more prone to psychological trauma.

This is the reason why memory repression or forgetting is a key component of treating PTSD — the ability to forget is often used as a protective mechanism that helps to improve mental health.

“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,” argues Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, editor at Brain Blogger, and a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research.

Forgetting strengthens learning

New research suggests that forgetting is part of the process of learning and memorizing. It allows for new information. It’s your brain’s attempt to process new information— as soon as you learn something new, your brain process it and works to sort out its importance.

Use your brain’s desire to forget to your advantage by leveraging spaced-repetition — repeating what you are trying to retain over a period of time.

For example, when you read your favorite book, instead of putting it away, re-read it again after a month, then again after three months, then again after six months, and then again after a year.

You cannot stop your brain from forgetting, but you can manipulate its effect. When you quickly revisit the material a number of times, the pieces of information you retain strengthen, instead of quickly fading away.

Science has shown that when your brain initially stores information in your long-term memory, it’s not permanent until you revisit it a few times to increase the chances of retaining it.

By building spaced repetition systems into your learning, you’ll avoid the natural and biological process that often interferes with new information.

If you don’t want to forget anything or store a piece of information for long-term reference, you can also do something with the information. This creates meaning, emotional connections, and leads to undisturbed intentional processing. You’ll also actively work towards pushing your target knowledge into your long-term memory.

Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re consistently assaulted with facts, pseudo-facts, notifications, and rumor, all posing as information. Information overload means we are processing more data than ever before.

Forgetting is how the brain filters important information from the clutter. It’s how your brain makes you more efficient. It’s the brain’s frontline strategy in processing incoming information, making better decisions and enhancing mental performance.

This article first appeared on Medium.

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