The Power of Forgetting

You won't remember this article—but this is helping you to be smart.

Posted Nov 22, 2019

Do you remember the first headline when you entered the Psychology Today website? Or the second news item you checked on your smartphone app today? Or what you had for lunch four days ago? The more you try to remember, the more you realize how bad your memory is. If you just try to recall a news headline or your last lunch, this is not very important – but if you try to remember someone’s name when you see his or her face, it’s quickly getting embarrassing.

It’s no surprise that we always try to fight forgetting. Mnemonics shall help you remember the important things, Ginko based pharmaceuticals are supposed to let you forget forgetting – a whole industry is supporting us to get a perfect memory. But doing so can have a major cognitive disadvantage since forgetting is nothing bad in general. Of course, forgetting someone’s name can be very awkward. But consider the alternative: A perfect memory would eventually lead to a cognitive overkill. If you remembered everything, it would be hard to distinguish important from unimportant information. Furthermore, the more you know, the longer it takes to “recall” memories. Like a crowded e-mail inbox: The more e-mails you have, the longer it takes to find a particular one. You probably have experienced this memory delay yourself: It is called the tip-of-the-tongue-effect. You know that you know the name of the person in front of you – but it takes some time for the networks in your brain to synchronize and create the memory.

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In the brain memories are not stored like on a flash drive. They are created every time when we remember.
Source: 99Art / Shutterstock

We need to forget in order to remember the important things. Consequently, the brain does not organize information like you do on your computer. There you have folders where you put your files or documents. If you want to look them up later, you just open the folder and retrieve the information. This is very different to the brain, where you don’t have folders or specific places for a memory. Even more: There is no particular region where you “store” information in your brain. No matter how deeply you look inside the brain, you will never find a memory – because a memory is how the brain cells interact at a specific moment. Just like an orchestra does not “contain” music but creates a specific melody when the musicians synchronize. Same with a memory in the brain: It is not located anywhere in the neuronal network but is created by the brain cells every time you remember something. This has two advantages: You are very flexible and dynamic, thereby it’s possible to combine memories quickly to give rise to new ideas. Furthermore, the brain is never “full”. Asking how many things we can possibly remember is just like asking how many melodies an orchestra is able to play.

But this way of processing information comes with a cost: We are easily overwhelmed by incoming information. Every time we are experiencing something new, the brain cells need to train the specific activity pattern, they adjust their connections and tailor the neuronal network. This requires neuronal contacts to be expanded or torn down—always trying to make it easier to activate a certain pattern the next time. Thus, your brain networks need some time to adjust to incoming information, you need to forget something, in order to sharpen the memories of the important things.

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Just like we digest our breakfast we have to "digest" information to avoid a cognitive overload.
Source: 99Art / Shutterstock

In order to filter incoming information right away, we should proceed similarly to how we eat: We consume food and, afterward, take some time to digest. For example, I love eating muesli. Every morning I hope that a lot of the “muesli molecules” will turn into “muscle molecules” in my body. But this is only going to happen if I take some time and digest. If I eat muesli constantly all the time, I’m going to explode. Same with information: If you consume information permanently, you’re going to “explode”. This kind of “mental explosion” comes in different flavors: forgetting, the feeling that time seems to fly, that it’s hard to concentrate, to prioritize, to remember the important things, that you feel distracted all the time. All these kinds of diseases of civilization are the result of our cognitive behavior: We underestimate the time we need to digest information (and forget unimportant ones).

When I read some news over breakfast every morning, I don’t look up the most recent news stories on my smartphone afterward while I’m on the subway. Instead, I wait and don’t look on my smartphone. This is hard and you start to feel a bit like a communication relic from the 1990s, locked out of the modern Apple and Android universe. But I know it’s worth receiving pitying glances from fifteen-year-olds who just scroll through their Instagram stories. I know I won’t be able to remember all of the details I read in my morning newspaper over breakfast. But just as my body is breaking my muesli down into individual components, my brain is also breaking down the pieces of information from my morning. This is the moment when information becomes knowledge.