If you can never find your car keys or remember your neighbor's name, here's some good news. A new review paper finds that our brains are purposefully working to forget less useful information in order to make room for more valuable data.
Researchers at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research studied the literature on remembering, also known as persistence, and newer research on forgetting, also called transience. There's an increased interest in studying the mechanisms that actively promote the brain to forget, the researchers said, showing that forgetting is as key to our memory apparatus as remembering.
"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," co-author Blake Richards, an associate fellow in the Learning in Machines & Brains program, said in a statement.
In the review paper, published in the journal Neuron, the researchers suggest how the interaction between remembering and forgetting in the brain allows us to make more intelligent decisions based on memory.
How remembering and forgetting work together
Forgetting makes us smarter by working with memory in two ways, the researchers say.
First, when we let go of outdated information, it lets us adapt to new situations. By forgetting the older and potentially misleading information, we're more easily able to maneuver our way through changing environments.
"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," said Richards.
Forgetting also makes decision-making easier by helping us generalize past events to new ones. We don't remember the insignificant details of the event, just the important information. These simple memories make it easier for us to intelligently predict new experiences based on past experiences.
What and how much we remember is cued by our environments. For example, an attorney or designer with a set of clients likely will remember their names for a longer period of time. A cashier — who has a changing sea of customers every day — will only remember names for a short amount of time.
"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," says Richards.
The researchers point out that the adage is true: If you don't use it, you lose it. But as this review shows, that can be a good thing. Clearing out the information you don't need can help make room for the important stuff. And that can make you smarter.