Why Forgetting Can Make You Smarter

First Posted: Jun 26, 2017 09:27 PM EDT

Forget something? Turns out you might be getting smarter.

Two University of Toronto researchers, Paul Frankland and Blake Richards, explained in Neuron that much of the time we forget things, our brains are intentionally doing so.

If someone remembers every detail, most of us would call that person a genius. Now research suggests the brain actively forgets information in order to strengthen decision-making, retaining essential information and getting rid of the rest.

How does this happen? "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," says Frankland. One targets connections between neurons involved in encoding memories. These neurons are weakened or eliminated. The second involves the creation of new neurons through stem cells. This process involves the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, which overwrite encoded memories stored in the circuits the new neurons are now rewiring. As a result, old memories are made more difficult to access.

Making memories harder to find sounds like a bad thing, but it's not.

"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," says Richards. Forgetting makes room for adaptation to new situations by getting rid of information that may mislead us when making an informed decision in a novel setting. Another way it helps is through generalization of old information into new. In other words, it allows for the integration of old events into the present by ridding extraneous information from the past in order to get a better perspective of the present and/or future.

But what if you want to remember events that your brain doesn't seem to care about? According to the authors, consistency coupled with the cues of your environment is key. "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, " says Richards. 

I'll try to forget that for next time.

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