Forget so that you can remember

Read another fascinating article by Melinda Beck in the Wall Street Journal titled ” You must remember this: forgetting has its benefits”. Her articles in the Wall Street Journal always tweak the neurologist in me. Ms. Beck in her piece talks about the importance of forgetting and how it is important in formulation and consolidation of memories.

Let us take a simple example, how many of us remember what we were doing at noon last Monday or what we ate for dinner a week ago (now some of you may very well remember what you ate for dinner a week ago if you eat the same thing every night or lead a very regimented life). The rest of us do not remember this information. Why you may ask does out brain not remember all these details? Well the answer is simple. This information is trivial and the brain does not consolidate these memories and hence these memoried are easily erased.

To continue with the above example, you may very well remember what you ate or did the night Senator Obama became President Elect Obama and you might be able to recall that information even many years from now. Why?  Well the brain has linked the “trivial information” of what you were eating or wearing that night to more important information “the night when history was made with the election of Senator Obama as President elect”. This linking of information leads to long term potentiation and hence consolidation of memories. Memories like these are not easily erased or lost.

The brain is always purging trivial memories, this keeps the hippocampi and other memory pathways always available and free to make new memories. Put in a different way, it prevents memory overload. If we remembered each and everything we did in our lives we shall be inundated with memories and not know what is important and what is not.

So is there anything practical which you can take away from what I said above? Well for one thing if you want to remember something and never forget, associate that memory to something important to you (eg associate something  to your birthday). Memory becomes more and more resilient when you associate it with other memories (eg a scent to a pretty lady, you smell the perfume, her picture comes up in your mind!!!).  Secondly forgetting is not always bad, it “frees up” space in the brain so that when something important comes along your brain has space to store that memory trace.

Nitin Sethi, MD

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