Forgetfulness can be a frustrating thing, and it’s easy to think forgetting and failing are the same thing. But recent research suggests that common bouts of forgetfulness could actually be an adaptation of our brains to prevent us from being overloaded with information. In other words, it's a healthy part of the brain's operation. In studying how and why we forget, as well as how we learn, we can find out a lot more about how our brains actually work.
According to two well-known researchers from the University of Toronto, our memory’s primary function isn’t to help communicate the most accurate information, but instead to prioritize the most useful information that can help us make smart decisions in the future. In other words, our brains are trained to forget immaterial details and instead focus on the information that's going to help us to make decisions in the real world.
While some researchers focus on the idea of memory and looked at the neurobiology of remembering, or perseverance, others look at the neurobiology of forgetting, or transience.
Researchers found evidence of weakening of the synaptic connections between neurons that help to encrypt memories, as well as the signs in which the new neurons overwriting existing memories, to make them harder to access. So why is the brain spending time and energy trying to make us forget?
Primarily, forgetting helps us adjust to new circumstances by letting go of our old memories we don't need. So, if your favorite coffee shop has moved to the other side of the town, and you find a new one closer to you, your brain will let you forget the old location and thus, help you remember the new one.
To put it another way, forgetting allows us to generalize our past events and help us to make decisions about new ones. There is a concept in artificial intelligence known as regularization. This means, when you just tend to remember the main gist of your previous visits to that coffee shop; rather than every little detail, it will then be less work for your brain to figure out how to behave the next time you go in there.
Now – when you try to navigate the world, your brain will constantly bring up the multiple conflicting memories, and this does make it harder for you to make knowledgeable decisions. Because of this, researchers also think the amount of forgetting we do could be contingent on the environment, and the faster things change, the faster our brains adapt and forget information which is no longer relevant.
In recent experiments, it was proven that forgetting information we need to remember too often is frustrating, and this can be a sign of more serious problems. But new research suggests that at a certain level of forgetfulness is actually a built-in mechanism which is designed to make us smarter.
The point of memory is to make you a smart person who can make wise decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information which is not important to remember. So, don’t get so down on yourself the next time you forget something you used to know very well. Look at your circumstances, is this information relevant to you anymore? If not, thank your brain for freeing up this space for a new memory!