Why Being Forgetful Can Be A Great Thing

Have you ever wondered why you can remember what you were wearing in kindergarten when you were sent home with chicken pox, but you can't remember where you put your phone five minutes ago? Turns out, the reason why is actually a pretty great one: As IFLScience points out, scientists say that being forgetful is actually a sign your brain is working properly. A study from University of Toronto published in the journal Neuron found that forgetting some things is just as important as remembering others in order for your brain to make good decisions.

"It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world," U of T Scarborough Assistant Professor Blake Richards, author of a new review study focusing on the role forgetting information plays in memory, told U of T News.

And, with more irrelevant details to remember than ever before in today's hyper-connected world, you may feel like all your doing is forgetting things. The struggle is real. My roommate and I use Find My iPhone on the regular, and we have a particular place we always put our keys so we don't lose them since there is no find-my-keys app.

If you feel like you're forgetting more things than you're remembering lately — I have good news — you are totally normal. And, your forgetfulness is likely not a sign of a memory disorder.

Can't Remember? Forgetabboudit!

According to U of T News, neurobiological research on memory has mostly focused on cellular mechanisms involved in storing information, also known as persistence. Less attention has been paid to those involved in forgetting, also known as transience. "It’s often been assumed that an inability to remember comes down to a failure of the mechanisms involved in storing or recalling information."

However, this new research shows some neurons growing in your brain's hippocampus region are actually designed to promote forgetting, and it's particularly prevalent in children. This could be why you don't remember much before you were 3 or 4 years old.

But, why does your brain want to forget things? Don't we need all of this information? We actually don't, and much like shedding excess baggage, your brain tries to dump old information it doesn't need so it can make room for new information that will help you succeed in real life.

"If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision," Richards explained to U of T News. "The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information.”

Perhaps this is why I can't remember anything beyond basic math, but I can commit multiple writing style guides to memory. If saving the world depended on my doing algebra successfully, I'm sorry to tell you that you're all doomed.

But, if I had to recite rules from the Associated Press style guide, we'd be safe. Because I literally haven't used algebra since my freshman year of college, my brain likely got rid of this information. But, as a writer who uses style guides every day, my brain knows to store that data for the long haul.

What's even more fascinating about this is that each person's brain is individualized to store and dump information based that person's specific needs.

Science Alert reported that one experiment mentioned by the study's co-author, Paul Frankland, U of T associate professor and senior scientist of neurosciences and mental health at SickKids, involved mice looking for a maze. "When the location of the maze was moved, mice that were drugged to forget the old location found the new one more quickly."

This makes a lot of sense. Last week I couldn't find the keys to my home office (the garage), though I was positive I remembered putting them back on the key tray the day before. After much hair pulling, I finally found them in the door.

As it turns out I was remembering putting them back in the tray two days earlier, not one. In the meantime, my roommate had used them and left them in the door. If my brain had forgotten that I remembered putting them back, I would have checked the door right away instead of insisting I had put the keys back, and therefore they had to be there.

Honestly, I think my brain could stand to do a little more forgetting so I can get out of my own way. If you are very forgetful, congratulations, your brain is working exactly how it's supposed to. Maybe there is something to the whole Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind phenomenon after all.