Stop feeling bad about your memory. It turns out that being forgetful can help you be smarter.
Most of the time, people with a poor memory feel bad about themselves. Maybe you get frustrated about not remembering why you entered a room or become embarrassed when you can’t remember someone’s name.
New research that was originally published in Neuron, a scientific journal, shows that forgetting things is more than just normal. Being forgetful can make us smarter. CNN recently released a nice summary of the original article and talked to other experts in the field.
University of Toronto researchers Blake Richards and Paul Frankland propose in their report that memory’s goal isn’t transmitting information that is the most accurate as we previously thought.
Instead, they argue that memory holds onto the important information while forgetting that of less importance.
This in turn optimizes smart decision-making. Richards, who is part of the Learning in Machines and Brains program as an associate fellow, explained:
“It’s important that the brain forget irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”
Just how did the researchers come to their surprising conclusion?
They looked at years on end of data related to memory, as well as brain activity and memory loss. Frankland and Richards argue that constantly replacing old memories with new ones provides evolutionary benefits. Richards put it simply:
“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.”
When working, our brains don’t necessarily remember specifics of various events in the past, instead focusing on the big picture.
Forgetting can even help you adapt to a new situation as you let go of old information that may be misleading.
We as a society are constantly impressed by those with stores of trivia in their brains, but according to Richards:
“Evolution shaped our memory not to win a trivia game, but to make intelligent decisions. And when you look at what’s needed to make intelligent decisions, we would argue that it’s healthy to forget some things.”
Of course, there is a balance between forgetting too much and remembering everything.
Richards and Frankland argue that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if you constantly forget small things like where you put your phone or someone’s name. At the same time:
“You don’t want to forget everything, and if you’re forgetting a lot more than normal that might be cause for concern. But if you’re someone who forgets the occasional detail, that’s probably a sign that your memory system is perfectly healthy and doing what it should be doing.”
To make you feel better about forgetting minor details, remember that technology has dramatically changed what you need to remember on a regular basis. With a smartphone in your hand, you can easily look up simple facts or even phone numbers. Since our brains no longer have to store these small details, they can focus on memories that matter.
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Richards also has a suggestion for keeping your brain healthy that will benefit the rest of your body: exercise.
He explains that when you exercise, there are more neurons within the hippocampus. To some, this is concerning since it can lead to the loss of some memories. Richards points out, however, that those lost memories from exercise are
“Exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions.”
So exercising not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, but keeps your brain and memory system functional.
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