Ever wandered into a room and immediately forgotten what you were looking for, or accidentally misplaced your vehicle in a car park? Our working days are so full of deadlines, targets and meetings that it is little wonder that the average person forgets four things a day. That’s 1,460 things each year! We are constantly bombarded with bits of useless information and we already have far too much for our saturated minds to remember: a different password for every online transaction to outsmart the cyber crooks, gadgets to charge up overnight and credit card bills to pay off before the charges start to build.
However, a new study from the University of Toronto says that forgetting things may not always imply you are scatterbrained. Instead, it could be crucial to coping with new challenges. Blake Richards and Paul Frankland argue in the journal Neuron that, “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.” The things that you forget therefore are just as important for brain efficiency as those you remember. Recent research in mice has found that, rather than being a passive process, the brain seems to encourage the loss of memories. Over the last five years, research has shown that the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus seems to promote forgetting so amnesia is something the brain actually expends energy on!
So next time you mislay your keys, forget your anniversary or can’t remember the name of someone you met last week, don’t blame old age — blame your brain’s evolved mechanisms for neuronal transience. Forgetting can actually help us to smooth out complicated details, to recognise patterns and to make sense of the world. Remember that “the real goal of memory is to optimise decision-making”.