- It's natural for people to be concerned they are becoming forgetful, especially about mundane information.
- But forgetting can actually be part of healthy brain function.
- The exception occurs when someone is experiencing dementia, which disrupts normal memory processing.
Many people come to therapy voicing concerns that they are overly forgetful. They may say things like:
- “I have trouble remembering dates, like birthdays, anniversaries, or appointments. I feel like I’m letting people down or missing out on things.”
- “I often forget where I put my keys, wallet, phone, or glasses. I waste so much time looking for them, and sometimes I’m late for work or other obligations.”
- “I always forget people’s names, even if I just met them. It’s so embarrassing and frustrating.”
If you resonate with these statements, rest assured that there’s likely nothing to be concerned about. We are all forgetful from time to time, especially when it comes to routine or mundane tasks or information. Our brains are constantly processing a vast amount of information, and sometimes less important details can slip through the cracks. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem with our memory or cognitive abilities.
Also, contrary to popular belief, we don’t forget things because “our brains are full.” Your brain is a complex interaction of electric signals, muscles, and neurons—far more intricate and dynamic than something like your phone, which comes with a finite amount of storage.
In fact, new evidence from a study published in Nature suggests that forgetting may actually be a feature of the brain, not a bug. Here’s more on that:
Forgetting Promotes Learning by Allowing Us To Adapt to a Changing Environment.
When scientists from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Toronto got together to study the phenomenon of forgetting, they came up with a new theory that suggests that forgetting is not just a passive process but an active mechanism that is constantly at work in the brain.
Instead of disintegrating or decaying, older memories become less relevant and more difficult to access over time. As a result, they may eventually become, for all practical purposes, non-existent. According to the new theory, that is when we believe we have forgotten a memory.
Our memories are stored in “engram cells,” which are essentially groups of specialized neurons that fire in response to an environmental cue.
For example, when we smell the perfume that our recent ex-partner used to wear, it can trigger certain groups of cells in our brain and bring back a flood of memories associated with the relationship. However, as time passes and we form new romantic connections with people who have different preferences in fragrances, our brain creates new engram cells to store information that is more relevant to our current situation. As a result, when we encounter the scent of our ex-partner’s perfume again, after a considerable lapse in time, it is less likely to activate the original group of cells, causing us to “forget” the memory. This doesn’t mean that the memory is gone; it just means that it is not as easily accessible because it is no longer as relevant to our present circumstances.
Because the memory itself isn’t lost, the authors of the study are optimistic about the possibility of reversing the process of natural forgetting. However, the study also looked at the mechanism of forgetting in certain pathologies like Alzheimer’s disease, where the outcomes weren’t as promising.
The study found that, in the case of pathologies, the natural mechanisms of forgetting at play are hijacked by the disease. This renders engram cells highly inaccessible and, thus, leads to a more or less permanent state of memory loss.
Your brain is a remarkable feat of neurochemistry, with virtually unlimited storage capacity for information. While it’s natural to occasionally forget small details due to the vast amount of data your brain processes every second, there are ways to help mitigate this. If you find yourself frequently misplacing your house keys or forgetting important dates, consider using a reminder app on your phone to help keep track of these details. This allows your brain to focus on more important tasks, such as learning and processing new skills or information.