Is Forgetting Just as Crucial as Remembering?

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If you can’t remember simple bits of trivia that you used to know by heart, that could be a good thing.

Neuroscience often stresses the importance of remembering, but a recent study suggests that forgetting things is just as significant. Led by Blake Richards, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, the study proposes that the relationship between forgetting and remembering helps shape decision-making in busy environments.

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“The real goal of memory is to optimize decision-making,” Richards said in a press release. “It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.”

In collaboration with The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, the study suggests that forgetting can do more for your brain than you might think. Forgetting enhances flexibility by reducing the influence of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making and prevents overfitting to specific past events while promoting generalization, the researchers said.

“We find plenty of evidence from recent research that there are mechanisms that promote memory loss, and that these are distinct from those involved in storing information,” said Paul Frankland, co-author and U of T associate professor and senior scientist of Neurosciences and Mental Health at SickKids.

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Memory loss can happen as the brain weakens synaptic connections between neurons, erasing memories. Another mechanism supported by Frankland’s lab suggests that memory loss happens as new neurons are created and grow, overwriting memories that have already been stored.

It’s important for the brain to dump any outdated information as the world changes, Frankland said. Forgetting helps us stay sharp while making decisions by generalizing past events to new events through a process known as regularization in artificial intelligence.

Regularization creates computer models that prioritize information but also deletes details. Richards said the brain works to include and eliminate memories in the same way, helping us to navigate the world around us.

“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision,” Richards said.

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The environment in which we live plays a key role in how we forget or remember things. How things stay the same and how they change can determine what is remembered and what is forgotten.

“One of the things that distinguishes an environment where you’re going to want to remember stuff versus an environment where you want to forget stuff is this question of how consistent the environment is and how likely things are to come back into your life,” Richards said.

A good memory doesn’t store everything and doesn’t memorize everything like you might think. Memory is a device used by the brain to help make intelligent decisions, Richards said.

“We always idealize the person who can smash a trivia game, but the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972,” he said. “The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information.”

Tori Linville
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.