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Why We Forget

The benefits of not remembering.

Anton Mikhmel StudioNW/Shutterstock
Source: Anton Mikhmel StudioNW/Shutterstock

Of the various ways that memory shows its imperfections, the most prevalent by far is forgetting. We forget much of what we read, watch, think, and encounter directly in the world. (Of course, we also remember many events, but that’s a subject for another post.) One disquieting but quick way to test the extent of forgetting is to access a list of celebrities who died in 2021. See how many you recognize having read about, but then forgotten.

Why Do We Forget?

1. The broadest reason we forget is that in our everyday lives, we focus on understanding the world, not remembering it.

Memory is profoundly important in retrospectively defining ourselves, but we don’t approach new events in the world with the primary goal of remembering them. We appreciate, manage, enjoy, negotiate, confront, praise, love, argue, get through — all ways of understanding.

We go to a baseball game not to remember it, but to enjoy ourselves at the ballpark. We don’t walk along a nature trail with the goal of remembering the walk. We don’t set out from our homes in the morning with the goal of memorizing our day. We do remember aspects of the baseball game and specifics from our walk and episodes at work, but only as a byproduct of comprehension.

Memory research and popular writing have placed too much emphasis on memory. The situations in which we concentrate our attention on remembering are actually very limited—studying for an exam, preparing a presentation, trying to learn people’s names. In everyday life, we do not focus on remembering what we do. We focus on doing. It’s no coincidence that the people who study memory and its imperfections are the very same people who give classroom exams.

We attend to the present, and therefore we forget. We live our lives moving forward—comprehending, acting, and reacting. It should not be surprising, then, that we occasionally walk into a room and forget the reason we came in. When we decided to go into the room, we had a specific action in mind, something to accomplish. But we were focused on carrying out that action, not on remembering it.

2. Forgetting helps us live with the pains and traumas of life.

After a painful break-up, the loss of a parent or spouse, or a very troubling event, most of us find that time eventually eases the pain. But it’s not physical time that causes pain to diminish. Vivid emotional details become less accessible to conscious experience. The edges of memory are smoothed over, and painful memories diminish in intensity.

The recently discovered system of cannabinoid neurotransmitters in our brain demonstrates the central importance of both living in the present and dampening the effects of memory.

The cannabinoid system heightens sensory experience and disconnects the intrusions of memory, placing us more in the perceptual moment and cushioning us from memories that might distract us or cause us pain.

Which brings up a question currently being debated in the medical and psychological communities: If we could wipe away the effects of a deeply unpleasant memory, should we do so? Beta-blockers such as propranolol can diminish the emotional effects of traumatic memory and can be considered medicine for reducing the disturbance from these memories, easing the symptoms of PTSD.

Should our painful memories be maintained to teach us lessons about the world, or should the pain of those memories be treated like unpleasant physical symptoms and reduced or eliminated? Whatever one's position on this issue, we can agree that forgetting unpleasant events has value to us.

3. Memory is designed to be selective.

In the short story “Funes the Memorious,” Jorge Luis Borges writes about a young man, Funes, who is thrown from a horse and permanently paralyzed. Funes then spends his days in a darkened room working diligently to develop his memory, which eventually becomes so prodigious that he remembers every detail in his life. The difficulty of this position is illustrated by the fact that when Funes recalls the events of the previous day, it takes a full 24 hours to do so. We do not remember that way. We forget—a lot. In fact, forgetting is a necessary part of remembering what’s important.

Computer code that is 99.3 percent accurate is wrong. But why should human memory be held to that same standard? Our memory is usually accurate enough for our purposes—to remember the overall gist of an event and to retain selected images.

4. Forgetting has practical benefits and actually enhances some recall.

There are clear advantages to forgetting outdated information, such as where you parked your car yesterday, an old password you no longer use, the pin code you've replaced, or the details of a former long-term relationship. In fact, there are situations in which forgetting helps you learn: When acquiring a second language, for example, it is useful to suppress memory of your native language.

More broadly, forgetting helps memory. People who are better able to prune away irrelevant events are also better able to remember pertinent events, a phenomenon known as adaptive forgetting.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, forgetting can be troublesome, especially given the importance people place on being remembered. The philosopher Avishai Margalit relates the story of an Army colonel forgetting the name of a soldier under his command who was killed in battle. The colonel’s simple failure of memory is then treated as a moral failure, and he is harshly criticized. We see milder versions of this situation in our everyday lives when we momentarily forget the name of an acquaintance or can't recall a particular word. But everyday failures of memory should not be taken personally or taken to heart. We forget a lot, naturally. Most forgetting is part of healthy memory functioning.

Forgetting can be frustrating. It leads to disappointing performance on exams. It forces us to retrace our steps or spend hours looking for a misplaced item. At times, it may embarrass us. But forgetting is necessary. 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.

For information on the strengths of memory, see “Why Your Memory Is Far Better Than You Think.”

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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