Scientists Say Being Forgetful Might Be A Sign You Are Actually More Intelligent
You know how people boast about their memory? Well, perhaps they shouldn’t—especially as research recently published in the journal Neuron has concluded that not only is forgetting things a normal brain process, forgetting things may actually make us smarter as well!
Researchers Paul Frankland and Blake Richards, both of the University of Toronto, propose that we’ve misunderstood the role of memory in our brains. Rather than, as most of us have assumed, holding on to the most accurate information for long periods of time, they propose that memory is designed to instead optimize our decision-making process. As a result, our brains should let go, or forget, the things that aren’t as important, instead holding on to the more important things that affect decision-making in the future.
“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,” says Richards, who researched memory as part of his role as an associate fellow in the Learning in Machines and Brains program.
Both Richards and Frankland came to this conclusion after years of research, during which they sifted through huge data sets on brain activity (in both humans and animals), memory, and memory loss. And that comprehensive approach proved invaluable.
For instance, one of Frankland’s mice studies found new brain cells form in the hippocampus (where we associate learning new things) in part by writing over old memories (thus making them harder to access).
The way our brain swaps memories in this way, though, has an important evolutionary role, in that it allowed us to forget potentially misleading information, allowing us to more quickly make intelligent decisions in the future. “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,” says Richards.
Similarly, this rewriting process allows us to forget small, misleading past events while still seeing the overall big picture, which allows us to more intelligently generalize in the future, which in turn helps us translate past experiences into a smart approach for future situations.
“We all admire the person who can smash Trivial Pursuit or win at Jeopardy, but the fact is that evolution shaped our memory not to win a trivia game, but to make intelligent decisions,” says Richards. “And when you look at what’s needed to make intelligent decisions, we would argue that it’s healthy to forget some things.”
And this has real-world implications for those of us who are forgetful.
“You don’t want to forget everything, and if you’re forgetting a lot more than normal that might be cause for concern,” he says. “But if you’re someone who forgets the occasional detail, that’s probably a sign that your memory system is perfectly healthy and doing exactly what it should be doing.”
Richards notes that this is especially true when we have access to so much information via our smart phones and computers, courtesy the web. That isn’t information we have to store in our brain any more, and so if our brain is consistently forgetting that stuff (phone numbers, or addresses, for instance), it’s with good reason—our brains are clearing that space for things we do actually need to remember, and that matter to us.
Especially in today’s computers-at-our-fingertips society, Richards says, our brains no longer need to store information like phone numbers and facts easily found on Google. “Instead of storing this irrelevant information that our phones can store for us, our brains are freed up to store the memories that actually do matter for us,” he says.
He of course also notes that exercise is a key part of clearing and resetting our brain to keep it healthy. “We know that exercise increases the number of neurons in the hippocampus,” he says. Yes, that may cause some memories to be lost, he says, “but they’re exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions.”