They say that an elephant never forgets. I am not an elephant. I am constantly losing things: my keys, my cell phone, occasionally my mind. On a good day I blame it on mom brain. On a bad day I curse the early onset of old age. But apparently, it’s neither.
It’s possible I’m a genius.
At least according to a study coming out of the University of Toronto and published in the journal Neuron. Two neuroscientists looked at the role forgetfulness has on memory and discovered that forgetting irrelevant details makes room for better decision making. In other words, forgetting is just as important as remembering when it comes to being able to make intelligent decisions.
According to one of the lead researchers, U of T Scarborough Assistant Professor Blake Richards:
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.
I’m not sure that forgetting where I put my coffee this morning is “irrelevant” (because coffee is life) but whatever.
He goes on to say:
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.
Forgetful person = intelligent person.
Along with fellow co-author Paul Frankland, U of T associate professor and senior scientist of neurosciences and mental health at SickKids, Richards reviewed research on both remembering, known as persistence, and forgetting, or transience. They found that our brains are actively working to forget. As in, on purpose.
“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,” says Frankland.
He believes that the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, old information becomes outdated and may be misleading or irrelevant in our constantly changing world.
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.
Secondly, eliminating specific details can make it easier to generalize our knowledge and past experiences and apply them to our present circumstances.
Richards also states:
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.
Except this doesn’t explain forgetting your keys or your pants, both of which are extremely likely to come back into your life. Hopefully.
Regardless, this study makes me feel vindicated. And highly intelligent. For I’ve been known to lose my sunglasses on more than one occasion, abandon the vacuum in the middle of the stairs, and lose my phone WHILE I’M TALKING ON MY PHONE. If I don’t write it down on a shopping list, it doesn’t make it into the shopping cart. I’ve forgotten what day of the week it is, what year it is, and what I was just about to say…
I forget where I parked the car (I would like to take this moment to thank the inventor of the key fob and its ability to flash the lights and sound the horn). And what I ate for dinner three nights ago. Oh, and that important document that I put away in a “safe” place? Let me know if you ever find it.
So the next time you forget something, don’t berate yourself. Instead, take heart. Your brain is in the process of creating new neurons at precisely the moment you can’t recall where you put the damn keys. Therefore, you, my friend, are just too smart to remember.