Forgetting is more important than remembering

How losing memories can benefit us

From misremembering the names of our acquaintances, to failing to recall a memory accurately, for decades we have viewed forgetfulness as a shortcoming of the human mind. Yet recent neuroscience and psychology demonstrates this to be a myth, argues Scott A. Small. From creativity to intelligence and empathy to courage, the art of forgetting may be more vital to the human condition than remembering.


It used to be thought that forgetting anything — from minor things like the name of a casual acquaintance, to the more painful loss of cherished memories experienced by my Alzheimer’s Disease patients — was caused, to varying degrees, by a failure of the brain’s memory mechanisms. But new developments in neuroscience over the past decade show that this idea is deeply flawed.

dementia self identity memory psychology Muireann Irish SUGGESTED READING Remembering your self By Muireann Irish An understanding of recent literature on the brain demonstrates why this is the case: Neurons contain what are sometimes called nanomachines that are dedicated to the construction of new memories. But recently, science has discovered that neurons are also endowed with a completely different set of nanomachines designed for the opposite purpose: to carefully disassemble — and thus forget — components of our stored memories.

In contrast to ‘pathological’ forgetting, the forgetting that worsens as we age and in disease, normal forgetting, the forgetting we are born with, can no longer be thought of as a malfunction of our memory machinery. Instead, normal forgetting should be considered a healthy and adaptive part of our brain’s normal functioning.


Memory and forgetting work in unison


Memory and forgetting work in unison. We depend on our memory to record, to learn and to recall, and we depend on forgetting to countervail, to sculpt and to squelch our memories. This balancing act is, as it turns out, vital for our cognitive functioning, creativity and mental health.

New insights into neurology, computer science, psychology and even philosophy illustrate how normal forgetting is indeed beneficial. What clearly emerges is that memory needs to be counterbalanced by forgetting in order to successfully live in a world that is not only blooming and buzzing with information, but also with information that occasionally stings. By freeing our minds, forgetting liberates us from the drag of memories that moors us in unnecessary details, that imprisons us in pain and in looping obsessions. Forgetting, therefore, is not a nuisance, not a failure, but rather is nature’s gift that allows us to be smarter, better, and happier people.


If you know someone who is very creative, that person is endowed with exceptional forgetting


If you know someone who can’t see the forest from the trees, seems to obsess over the parts and can’t see the whole-- the big picture-- you know someone whose memory-forgetting balance is off kilter with not enough forgetting. To quote from Jorge Louis Borges, ‘to think clearly, to generalize, to abstract, we need to forget a difference’.

If you know someone whose personality is embittered with pain, who lives a lonely life of fear and trembling, who is vindictive or vengeful, or even ruthless with rage, you know someone who’s memory-forgetting balance of emotional memories is off kilter with too little forgetting. Intuitively, it makes sense that we sometimes need to “let go” of hurt and resentment to preserve close friendships and that we need to forget in order to forgive. “Letting go” is just one of the many colloquialisms that implicitly nod in recognition and gratitude toward our brain’s forgetting mechanisms.

If you know someone who is very creative, that person is endowed with exceptional forgetting.  Testimonials of creative people in all walks of life, and tests of creativity, shows that creativity requires that we first form lots of memory associations in our minds. But critically, for creativity to happen these memories need remain loose and playful for those eureka moments, a looseness that requires forgetting.  Emerson has a quote that captures this when he says that “Imagination is the morning of the mind, memory its evening”. And in fact, we now know that one main purpose of sleep is, what has been described in the sleep literature, to “smart forget”.

If you know someone who is xenophobic, who tends to obsess about their social circle, whether a clan or even a country, you know someone whose communal memory-forgetting balance is off kilter with too little forgetting. “On Nostalgia’ was a medical thesis written in 1688 by a young Swiss doctor named Johanus Hofer. Hofer invented the term Nostalgia to describe what he proposed was a new medical condition which is a brain disordered with too much memory, too little forgetting, about our beloved homelands, were we become so obsessed with these wistful memories that it becomes a mania. To quote from this thesis, patients afflicted with this condition are simply unable to “forget their mother’s milk”, and that “mediation over the fatherland” results in “a stupidity of the mind”.


Drugs like MDMA are known to act by effectively engaging our forgetting mechanisms by turning down the activity in a brain region that stores fear memories


One of the dictionary definitions of Nostalgia is “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to a past period”. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of yearning, and a longing for paradise lost is as part of the melancholic human condition that is as old as Adam and Eve. But when this memory of homeland burns too hot, when the love of those we know is subverted into a hatred of those we don’t, it becomes a moral and societal pathology.

It turns out that Hofer was wrong and there is no true medical condition that can be defined as Nostalgia. Nevertheless, as a neurologist who is working on developing drugs for disorders of too little memory in Alzheimer’s disease, it is interesting to think of whether there might be drugs that might ameliorate too much forgetting. 

Drugs like MDMA are known to act by effectively engaging our forgetting mechanisms by turning down the activity in a brain region that stores fear memories. MDMA is currently being tested as a treatment for PTSD, a disorder that fundamentally occurs because of too little fear forgetting. Some couples’ therapists have even used MDMA to accelerate the “forgetting and forgiving” process in their patients. From the testimonials of recreational users, quieting fear-related memories is apparently so potent in its “prosocial” effects — making people friendlier, more compassionate, even more loving — that it underscores how unchecked fear memories can make people antisocial and miserable.

One of the greatest risk factors for PTSD in soldiers is when, shortly post-trauma, they find themselves socially isolated, their minds exposed without a social fabric to protect them from the lashing loops of their fear and dread. Not every observation about the mind needs a neurological explanation, but it is nevertheless true that socializing causes our brains to secrete endogenous chemicals like oxytocin, which — similar to MDMA — induces fear forgetting. Gazing into one another’s eyes is all that is needed for oxytocin to be simultaneously secreted in the gazer and the gazed-upon, a feedback loop that induces a socially uplifting pas de deux. Preventing social isolation has become part of the standard of care for those returning from the battlefield and deemed at risk for PTSD.

I am neurologist who has been indoctrinated to treat pharmacologically, a neuroscientist who tries to reduce many things—even sometimes absurdly—to molecules. From the new science of forgetting I have come to appreciate a simpler and more elegant way to enhance our innate capabilities to emotionally forget: socialize, engage life with humor, and always, always try to live a life glittered with the palliative glow of love.


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