Why forgetting is good: a fascinating journey through our memory

Nima Veiseh and the memories
The 'supermemory'
The dark side of supermemory
'My memory, sir, is like a garbage dump'
Memories aren't always happy
Information overload
How our memory works
The brain's strategies for creating a memory
The Bond University study
The problems of hyperthimesics
How are memories physiologically fixed in Memory?
How do the neuronal connections of memories weaken?
What is the choice between what to remember and what not based on?
Remembering and forgetting are two indispensable phases
The right choice
When our memory tricks us
We are not getting old, we are just efficient
The benefits of not remembering
The brain thinks better
Making room for what really matters.
'In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important as remembering'
Memory is a survival tool
Nima Veiseh and the memories

Pick a random date and US artist Nima Veiseh will be able to tell you what he ate, how he was dressed, what the weather was like and who was next to him at the cinema. How does he manage to remember everything in such great detail? "As far as I know we're not entirely sure what causes ts," Veiseh told the Observer.

The 'supermemory'

Veiseh actually belongs to a small group of individuals suffering from hyperthymesia, the so-called "supermemory" syndrome. Like him, only a few dozen people in the world present HSAM (Acronym for Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory), that is, they remember (starting from a certain date) every detail of their lived experiences and are able to bring their memories to mind without any effort. Incredible potential, a gift of fate, isn't it? Or is it?

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

The dark side of supermemory

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had already warned us when he wrote "Funes the Memorious": the ability to remember everything, that prodigious memory that allows some 'lucky' people to retain any detail, is indeed an enviable quality, but it hides also some inconveniences.

Photo: Milad Fakurian / Unsplash

'My memory, sir, is like a garbage dump'

In fact, although, apparently, Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the Argentine's tale, is a genius and his prodigious memory is an extraordinary gift, Borges does not hesitate to introduce us to the other side of the coin. Funes's is a story full of ups and down in which Borges highlights the protagonist's inability to survive, crushed by the weight of his own memory.
"My memory, sir, is like a garbage dump," Funes would say.

Photo: ian dooley / Unsplash

Memories aren't always happy

Borges had this clear as early as 1944: sadness, pain, defeat and loss also shape our memories and in people with hyperthymesia  these sad flashbacks are vivid and precise. Remembering everything could actually be a real condemnation.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Information overload

And there is another factor to consider, beyond the emotional one. In 1944 the world was not yet subjected to the constant information overload of the modern day. In the constant swarming generated by the data and information that hit our brain every day, the ability to forget unnecessary details and discard that unnecessary information seems strange, yet it is the only means available to the adults to access to new ideas and new concepts. Imagine what it would be like to remember everything we read on the internet every day? We mean EVERYTHING.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

How our memory works

In that masterpiece of efficiency that is the human body, everything seems to be programmed to guarantee us an optimal level of well-being, even our memory. How does memory work? In simple terms: the brain receives information, encodes it, filters it and then decides whether to consolidate it, discard it or reorganize it, depending on what our needs are.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

The brain's strategies for creating a memory

To do this, the brain uses several strategies. One of them involves linking new information to the context in which we acquire it. For example, if we meet a person for the first time it is very likely that our brain associates them with the place where that meeting took place, because, most likely, the next moment in which we need to remember them will always take place in the same context. Smart, isn't it? Clearly there is also a cons: if we met that person again out of the context in which we met them, it is very likely that we would not even remember their face.

The Bond University study

This brain strategy was the subject of a Bond University study led by Oliver Baumann, Jessica McFadyen, and Michael S. Humphrey. By showing the sample some pairs of images of objects and environments, the authors were able to highlight two fundamental aspects of the functioning of our memory:

  1. It is easier for our brains to remember an object when it is shown in the same environment in which we first saw it, which becomes more complicated when we place it in a distinct environment.
  2. If we had never seen the object in question before, the difficulty of identifying it in an environment other than the initial one increases considerably.

Our memory, therefore, already operates a kind of skimming at the beginning and selects which information is the most important.

The problems of hyperthimesics

Dr. Baumann, head of the study, also presents the borderline case of people suffering from hyperthymia, such as Borges' Funes or Veiseh. What has been observed is that this syndrome causes serious difficulties in dealing with daily life, as those who suffer from it are unable to concentrate fully on the present and, strangely, to retain specific data in their memory of things they do not directly experience. Put simply, they remember everything, but only if they live it themselves.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

How are memories physiologically fixed in Memory?

At a physiological level, whether it is short-term or long-term memory, the process underlying the creation of memories is still the same. When we memorize something, synaptic connections are being created between our neurons, particularly in the hippocampus. When these connections weaken, then the mechanism that controls forgetfulness is triggered.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

How do the neuronal connections of memories weaken?

Subjected to new stimuli, our brain will create new connections that will overwrite the previous ones. Paul Frankland and Blake Richards, researchers at the University of Toronto argue the following: the creation of new neurons starting from stem cells (that is, from those "mother" cells for which a function has not yet been defined in the body) can lead to the generation of new connections in the hippocampus that rewrite previous connections, hence previous memories.

Photo: skylarvision / Pixabay

What is the choice between what to remember and what not based on?

The two Canadian researchers tried to answer this question by analyzing the possible neurobiological dynamics that underlie the selection and elimination of memories. According to the two researchers, the importance of forgetting is equal to that of remembering: memory, in fact, does not serve, as we mistakenly think, to store all information, but to optimize our decisions when faced with a choice. "If you are trying to orient yourself in the world, a brain that is constantly burdened with conflicting, and perhaps altered over time, memories will have a much harder time making decisions based on correct information," Richards explains.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Remembering and forgetting are two indispensable phases

They conclude, therefore, by stating how much this functioning of memory is necessary for humans, because, with this continuous "updating" of useful information. This allows the brain to organize, on a neurological level, work, and the ability to learn and grow - in short, to organize your life. Therefore, remembering and forgetting are two essential phases of the mnemonic process: it is only by forgetting unnecessary memories that our memory becomes "intelligent", efficient and receptive.

The right choice

Whether the choice is intellectual or emotional, it is only by forgetting, therefore, that our memory is able to identify which is the right choice for us. That means that forgetting is not a bug in the program of our memory, but a fundamental mechanism for everything to work efficiently and allows us to adapt to new situations, letting go of information that is no longer relevant or that could even be misleading.

Photo Tumisu / Pixabay

When our memory tricks us

This is why memory sometimes seems to play tricks on us. When we do not remember something, our first impulse is to point out stress and fatigue as responsible for our forgetfulness, but, although these factors have an influence in part, oblivion, in reality, would be nothing more than the response from our brain to the need to skim the memories, to keep only what it deems useful.

We are not getting old, we are just efficient

In the event that it is not a real pathology (for which other considerations apply), it would seem, therefore, that we should all calm down and not panic (and, above all, stop thinking that we have suddenly become old) . Because many scientists, it seems, agree on this point: not only is forgetting little things normal, it is even good.

Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

The benefits of not remembering

This is also confirmed by a study by Columbia University in New York, specifically by the Alzheimer's Research Center, summarized in the work 'Forgetting: The benefits of not remembering' by Dr. Scott Small, director of the center, who explains the reasons for mental well-being linked to forgetfulness.

Photo: ds_30 / Pixabay

The brain thinks better

According to the study, information that our brain deems useless actually represents an obstacle to our mental health: without it (i.e., forgetting it), our brains can think better, make better decisions and do so more quickly.

Making room for what really matters.

“Normal forgetfulness, balanced with adequate memory, gives us a more flexible mind,” says Dr. Scott Small. Forgetfulness means, in layman's terms, eliminating unnecessary information to make room for what really matters. Memory and forgetfulness work together, in balance.

Photo: chenspec / Pixabay

'In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important as remembering'

Others before him had also sensed it. In 1890 William James, one of the founders of US psychology, said: "In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important as remembering." After all, how could we think about the future, investing so many mental resources in the past?

Memory is a survival tool

As Dr. Moshe Bar, the director of the multi-disciplinary Gonda Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University puts it: "Memory is actually more of a survival tool than an entertainment platform. We use our experiences, captured in memory to anticipate and prepare the next events and meetings." So, don't worry: whether it's the house keys, the ATM PIN, that infallible password we chose for our email or the name of "that actor, yes, come on, the one who made that film together with that other one," it is not our memory that falters, it is our brain that does its duty and fights for us.

Photo: Luisella Planeta Leoni LOVE PEACE 💛💙 / Pixabay

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