Being Forgetful Might Actually Make You Smarter, Study Says

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Being Forgetful Might Actually Make You Smarter, Study Says
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The combination of intelligence and forgetfulness is an area of research that continues to puzzle scientists; as many tend to believe that being forgetful is a failure of the brain’s mechanism for the storage and retrieval of information. For most people, there is a direct correlation between having a good memory and being able to remember more information clearly for longer periods of time. However, as it turns out, having a perfect memory is not necessarily something to brag about.

According to a paper published in the journal Neuron, your failure to remember trivial details may indicate that your brain is getting better at separating the wheat from the chaff. Forgetting can happen due to the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with memory. [1]

The study reviewed current research into the neurobiology of forgetting. It presents a neurological basis on why our brains purposely work to forget information. [2] Researchers Paul Frankland and Blake Richards of the University of Toronto were involved in the study. They proposed that our memory optimizes intelligent-decision making by keeping what is important and getting rid of what is not. So, our brain needs to forget irrelevant details and have to focus on what could help make decisions in the real world. For example, if you had experienced getting badly stung by a bee, after a while you might not remember how awful it was. However, you probably remember that it is not a good idea to stay near a hive full of swarming bees. This is the brain using its ‘storage space’ efficiently.

They analyzed data from studies related to memory, memory loss, and brain activity that were carried out in humans and animals. One of the studies was from Frankland who found out that the formation of new brain cells in the hippocampus results in the overwriting of old memories. He stresses that the brain is not malfunctioning when it ditches the memory. [3] This process is important so the brain can focus something more valuable or create an image that is easier to understand.

Previous memory studies had focused on remembering or persistence. Now, there is a slew of studies exploring the neurobiology of forgetting or transience. [4][5] The Neuron study posits the major role played by the interaction between persistence and transience in paving way for intelligent decision-making.

Back in 2016, researchers at Stanford University also hypothesized why being forgetful may simply be a sign that the brain is functioning at a higher level. Brice Kuhl and colleagues explained why the process of forgetting has a good functional purpose. [6]

To further expound their hypothesis, the researchers applied it in the confusion people feel when they change passwords on their computers or email accounts. According to them, most people tend to mix up old and new passwords at first, but they develop a strong memory of the new one through repetition. Later, the old password is just a distant memory.

The University of Toronto and Stanford studies want to remind us why forgetting should not be initially viewed as a cognitive health concern. The bottom line is that your brain will not perform at highest capacity if it is storing all information you come across.

Further Reading:

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[1] Blake A. Richards and Paul W. Frankland. June 21, 2017. Neurons. The Persistence and Transience of Memory.

[2] Christopher Bergland. May 7, 2016. Psychology Today. The Neuroscience of How We Intentionally Forget Experiences.

[3] Frankland PW et al. September 2013. Trends in Neurosciences. Hippocampal neurogenesis and forgetting.

[4] Wixted JT. 2004. Annual Review of Psychology. The psychology and neuroscience of forgetting.

[5] Murre JMJ et al. February 28, 2013. Frontiers. A Mathematical Model of Forgetting and Amnesia.

[6] Michael Reilly. June 4, 2007. New Scientist. Forgetfulness is a tool of the brain.

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