Keep Forgetting Things? Neuroscience Says It Might Be a Hidden Brain Advantage

Forgetting things can be annoying. It can even be worrying.

  • What was that colleague’s name?
  • What time is the appointment tomorrow?
  • Was that vendor offering us 25 percent off 200 products, or 20 percent off 250?

Or even, as you grow a bit older: “Uh-oh. Am I forgetting things because my brain is slowing down due to aging?” 

Today, we have some good and interesting news to share on this front.

First of all, if you worry; stop. It’s not likely to help in any event. But second, it turns out that forgetting things might actually be a neurological advantage. 

How? According to a new theory in the journal, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, there are several key points:

  • First, we have to remember that at any moment, we’re all exposed to far more stimuli than we could possibly pay attention to, never mind remember accurately, even just seconds or minutes later.
  • Second, forgetting some things — maybe most things — is a natural mechanism of the brain, without which it would be almost impossible to function in daily life.
  • Finally, the brain has to promote access to specific memories — ideally, the most useful ones.

As a summary of the theory put out by Trinity College in Dublin explained:

“Rather than being a bug, forgetting may be a functional feature of the brain, allowing it to interact dynamically with the environment.

[F]orgetting some memories can be beneficial, as this can lead to more flexible behavior and better decision-making. 

If memories were gained in circumstances that are not wholly relevant to the current environment, forgetting them can be a positive change that improves our wellbeing.”

In other words, our brains learn to forget, and therefore, memories are never actually lost, but instead are simply made inaccessible — stored in the brain in a way that limits the ability to access them.

It’s important distinction, according to co-authors Dr. Tomás Ryan of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, and Dr. Paul Frankland, of the department of psychology at the University of Toronto, and one that leads them to believe that “this ‘natural forgetting’ is reversible in certain circumstances.”

They also theorize that “in disease states – such as in people living with Alzheimer’s disease for example – these natural forgetting mechanisms are hijacked, which results in greatly reduced engram cell accessibility and pathological memory loss.”

So, where does this leave you, as someone living, working, and leading today?

I hope it leaves you with a combination of hope, wonder, and an affinity for practical recollection strategies: namely, shoring up your memory with checklists, calendars, and simply double-checking small things.

If I can make an analogy, long-distance runners don’t bemoan the fact that they need hydration and fuel in order to reach their goals; they just find ways to carry or stash water and calories.

And, in an example that hits extremely close to home, creative-but-naturally disorganized people, if they’re smart, don’t simply live in chaos; they find systems to help them get organized.

(In my case, that meant actually hiring a professional organizer to help me design the easiest possible practical ways to keep my things straight and myself on track.)

Finally, if you find yourself worrying about memory, don’t. Ryan and Frankland are correct, the answers are all in your head somewhere. You just need to learn how to access them.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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