Interesting post via The Passive Voice blog: Are you forgetful? That’s just your brain erasing useless memories

Most of us think “perfect” memory means never forgetting, but maybe forgetting actually helps us navigate a world that is random and ever-changing.

So say two neuroscientists in a review published today in the journal Neuron. The argument is that memory isn’t supposed to act like a video recorder, but instead like a list of useful rules that help us make better decisions, says study co-author Blake Richards, a University of Toronto professor who studies the theoretical links between artificial intelligence and neuroscience. So it makes sense that our brains would make us forget outdated, irrelevant information that might confuse us, or information that leads us astray.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that “most of us” would have assumed that perfect memory, where you never forget anything, is not actually a great thing. If it were, why wouldn’t we all already have eidetic memories? Or better than eidetic?

Look, for example, at this woman who remembers everything. Thus we know it is possible for a human person to remember everything. Given that it’s in the possible human range, I think we can assume if perfect memory carried a big survival or reproductive advantage, lots of us would have that kind of memory.

What problems does this woman experience? Well, she remembers unpleasant things as vividly as pleasant things. For those who tend to dwell on the negative, that might well be a huge disadvantage. Also, another woman with the condition says, “It’s a huge temptation [to stay alone in her room and recall nice things]. I could, if I didn’t have stuff to do all day, I could probably live in the past 24/7.”

Imagine people in a hunter-gatherer society, filled with a lot of tedious but necessary work to do, but faced with that temptation. Or worse, an agrarian society with A LOT of GRINDINGLY tedious but necessary work to do.

So this article unsurprisingly discusses the advantages that accrue to forgetting.

None of which makes it less annoying when you walk into your bedroom, pause, and say to yourself, “Wait, why did I come in here?” I yield to no one in my ability to forget what the heck I meant to do in less than the minute it takes to walk downstairs, multiple times, before I finally remember whatever it was I needed to get or do.

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1 thought on “Forgetting”

  1. “[…] when you walk into your bedroom, pause, and say to yourself, ‘Wait, why did I come in here?'”

    This. T_T

    I’m with you; how could I live if I remembered every mistake I’ve ever made or every horrible thing I’ve ever heard of, all the time? One of the blessings of time is that it softens the intensity of our memories, so we can live without the weight of sorrow or fear or regret pinning us down or bending us over backwards.

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