In Praise of Forgetting
How not remembering can be helpful
Posted January 28, 2019
The next time forgetting inconveniences us, we should stop and consider its virtues.
Forgetting allows us to manage our complicated lives – encouraging us to remember what’s important, inspiring us to experience the present more fully, and restoring us after painful events in our lives.
Some may object and say that forgetting is undesirable and often unsettling, but the benefits of forgetting are considerable – and necessary.
Do we really want to remember all the faces we see at the airport?
Do we want to remember our anxiety while waiting to board a plane or the obliviousness of the person behind us tapping a carry-on against our leg? Many of the relentless details of our daily lives are best forgotten.
When we walk into a room and forget the reason we came in, we may criticize our faulty memory. But the same process that leads to this brief inconvenience also leads to the forgetting of irrelevant thoughts – a process we need. We emphasize the noteworthy instances when forgetting betrayed us, but let us also consider the many times when we happily forgot, when it was beneficial for us not to remember.
Here are six different benefits of forgetting.
1) Practically speaking, it doesn’t help to remember where we parked yesterday. It doesn’t help to remember an old password we no longer use or a pin code we’ve replaced or a friend’s unintentional insult. When we’re in a new relationship, we’re better off not remembering the intimacies of a former relationship.
2) Forgetting makes experiential learning possible. Such learning proceeds when specific memories of similar events coalesce into general knowledge. If we repeatedly go out to French restaurants, for example, we will acquire a fuller understanding of French cuisine – even as we forget many of the individual meals.
To gain general knowledge, we overlay information from similar events like superimposed imagery, misplacing particulars while becoming more knowledgeable about the type of event in general.
That’s one reason we sometimes mix up what happened at particular times. That’s also why children sometimes seem to have better memories than adults. A young child may clearly remember specific interactions while shopping for clothes one afternoon because that child may have gone to the store only a few times. The adult, however, has probably gone shopping hundreds of times. The child has a more vivid memory for shopping that afternoon, but the adult has a richer, fuller memory for clothing stores in general. Forgetting is not a breakdown of the memory system. It is a necessary function of learning.
3) Forgetting is required for accurate, selective remembering. Retrieval of one memory suppresses retrieval of other memories. Quick, precise recall results from forgetting what we don’t want to retrieve. What people think of as good memory is actually the ability to forget the irrelevant. People who are better able to prune away irrelevant events are better able to remember pertinent events.
4) Forgetting allows us to concentrate. It prevents intrusive memory images from remaining too long in consciousness – those off-topic thoughts that distract us. (What will I make for dinner? When did I last get my teeth cleaned? What was that funny line from the movie last night?) We need to remember the ideas and images that are on topic, but to do so, we need to quickly forget those that are not pertinent.
5) Forgetting encourages what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, what Maslow called a peak experience – losing oneself in the activities of the moment. We appreciate the present more fully when we aren’t remembering the past. Forgetting disconnects the intrusion of memory, placing us more in the perceptual moment and pushing away memories that might distract us from the pleasure of appreciating the present.
6) Forgetting gets us through the slings and arrows of everyday life.
The endurance and bracing vividness of painful memories lead many people to believe that unpleasant memories outnumber pleasant ones. In fact, we forget most of the everyday unpleasantness in our daily lives.
(If you’re willing, try the temporarily discouraging assignment of keeping a journal of annoyances for one day. Review it a week later and see how many irritations you’ve forgotten – the driver who honked so rudely, a pretentious comment made at dinner, an awkward interaction with a coworker.)
We forget the ordinary irritations, insults, small failures, misstatements, and rejections, and that allows us to live our lives more happily and productively. Forgetting keeps us positive.
We do remember the more disturbing events in our lives, but even these go through a type of forgetting. After a painful break up, after the loss of a parent or a spouse, after going through a traumatizing event, most of us find that time eventually eases the pain. However, it’s not physical time that causes pain to diminish. Vivid, emotional details in memory become less accessible to conscious experience, and recall of the painful events diminishes in frequency and duration. In other words, we partially forget.
When images from an unpleasant event repeatedly return to consciousness, unbidden and unwanted, we can attribute that to the power of memory. Or we can think of the repeated pain as a failure of the forgetting system. A system that usually protects us from such pain.
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We need a balance, of course, between remembering and forgetting. And we should hold each process responsible for our well-being. In an essay on memory, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated that happiness, virtuousness, and optimism depend on “being able to forget at the right time as well as to remember at the right time.”1
We forget a lot, naturally. But much of this forgetting is necessary for healthy functioning in a blooming, buzzing, vibrant, complicated, and occasionally disturbing world.
1. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated, with an Introduction, by Peter Preuss, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis and Cambridge, Friedrich Nietzsche: 1844-1900, first published in 1874. Copyright © 1980 by Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.