Can forgetting be a good thing?

In Issue 39, which we can only share online, neuropsychologist Margriet Sitskoorn tells us about the good things of forgetting and memory. 

What comes to mind when you think about your memory? There’s a good chance you think about what you’ve experienced, people you know, the feelings these memories evoke, the knowledge you’ve acquired or all the things you still have to do. Your memory plays an important role in your identity, your opinions of other people and what you focus on in life.

Active part of memory

It’s not so surprising that researchers have been trying to figure out for years how this cognitive function works. In their studies, they mainly concentrate on questions such as: ‘How do we remember things, and how can we improve this process so that we can learn faster and function better?’ No one really thinks about how forgetting can actually be good.

Forgetting is seen as a passive, disruptive process that just wasn’t worth studying. These days, we take a radically different approach to this subject. More and more studies are actually showing that forgetting is not a passive process that you should try to prevent, but an active part of memory that is necessary for us to live, and survive, happily and successfully.

According to researchers like Michael Anderson and Blake Richards, you can improve your learning by forgetting. This isn’t as paradoxical as it may seem. In order to be able to adapt to our ever-changing surroundings, we must ‘overwrite’ all or part of what we have learned with new information (and thus forgetting the old). If you’re not capable of doing this, then you continue to do what you always did. And because the world is constantly changing, this can cause mental and physical problems.

Hard to filter

Forgetting also boosts learning in another way. Suppose that you always remember everything. You might remember every detail of that one time you didn’t merge properly onto the highway and got into an accident. In other words, not only can you remember things related to the accident, such as the speed of the other cars, but also insignificant details such as the color of cars driving past and how many people were in the cars.

If you always remember everything, it becomes very hard to filter out what really matters from all this information and to learn to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

When a proper balance is struck with the act of remembering, forgetting can improve your ability to learn, predict the future and adapt. The prefrontal cortex plays an active role in this process of remembering and forgetting. This area at the front of the brain can actually steer your attention and suppress the effect of another part of the brain that is important to preserving memories, the hippocampus. This prevents some information from being stored and it gets forgotten.

‘Be and become’

All of this new knowledge on active forgetting doesn’t just help us to understand ourselves better, it also makes it possible to develop new forms of treatment for conditions involving disruptions in the balance between remembering and forgetting. This might be a post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease or some anxiety disorders.

When the right balance is struck between remembering and forgetting, you don’t have to get stuck in what was and even what wasn’t, but you can ‘be’ and ‘become’ over and over again. This concept might require some extra attention because it summarizes what life is all about. Don’t just cherish remembering, but also forgetting.

Text Margriet Sitskoorn Photography Beetjehome