The Upside of Forgetting

Letting go of extraneous information is key to making new memories. 

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The (Un)bearable Lightness of Memory

Forgetting: Friend or Foe?

Some memories are better off forgotten. Like your ex-boyfriend's phone number or the reason why you dated your ex-boyfriend in the first place. If forgetting can be a blessing, why do we more often think of it as a curse?

Many of us have the tendency to focus on what's absent in our lives rather than what's present, and memory is no exception. We notice the time our spouse/child/roommate forgot to take out the trash rather than the countless times they remembered to do the dishes. We agonize over the bills we forgot to pay rather than praising ourselves for the errands we did remember to run. I know many people who wish their memories were better, but I've yet to meet someone who wishes his memory was worse.

The latest edition of Wired magazine features ways to increase your brainpower, including improving your memory. One article highlights Piotr Wozniak, a man so obsessed with perfecting his memory that he has created a computer program called SuperMemo that calculates the ideal time to practice remembering every piece of information he wants to learn. His life is extremely regimented, with the computer dictating exactly when and what he studies. As you might imagine, all of this comes at a cost to his social life. Although he's married, it's unlikely you'd see him out at a party.

As much as most of us complain about forgetting, the idea of being slave to a computer program doesn't sound appealing, and we would never consider such an extreme approach to improving our memories. So why is forgetting still seen as the bad guy?

Consider the idea that forgetting liberates us. When I tried to recall an embarrassing memory to use in this blog, I drew a blank, evidence in itself of the sweet bliss of forgetfulness. Our ability to forget eliminates distractions that might otherwise dominate our thinking and allows us to focus on present and future events. Yet, these present events may one day be forgotten as well. Does forgetting an event render it meaningless? You could argue that memories that are forgotten might as well have not happened at all, that forgetting frees us from the past.

Maybe it is this freedom that we all fear. You only have to spend time with an elderly relative or a friend with Alzheimer's Disease to see that memory loss equals identity loss. By losing your memory, you lose your sense of purpose in life. For this reason, we will likely continue to cling to our memories, despite their lightness, and often fail to appreciate how bearable forgetting can be.