A story making the rounds today is that being forgetful may be a sign of your brain working properly. Not remembering trivial details may actually be a sign your brain is better at separating the wheat from the chaff.
This is an idea that’s been mooted before, but this latest research, conducted by the University of Toronto in Canada and published in the journal Neuron, backs up the claim.
They found that the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of our brain associated with memory, seemed to promote forgetting. The purpose was to make room for more important information, and do away with more useless things.
“We always idealize the person who can smash a trivia game, but the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972,” said Professor Blake Richards from the University of Toronto, lead author on the study, in a statement.
“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.”
This is something that’s been touted before. Back in 2007, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brains of 20 healthy adults while they performed a simple memory test. It suggested people were better at remembering conflicting information, rather than repeat or easy information.
“The process of forgetting serves a good functional purpose,” Michael Anderson of the University of Oregon told New Scientist at the time. “What these guys have done is clearly establish the neurobiological basis for this process.”
Richards' more recent study, with his colleague Paul Frankland, did not produce any experimental evidence. Instead, they reviewed previously published papers to come to their conclusion. And they found plenty of evidence that supported the idea of forgetfulness being rather useful.
There are several benefits to this. For one, the brain wants to get rid of old useless information, like an old password. If it’s constantly bringing up old things you don’t need anymore, it’s harder to make a concrete decision. It also makes it easier for us to generalize previous events, like multiple visits to a shop, rather than remembering every specific detail from each visit.
One example Richards and Frankland note is an experiment where mice looked for the exit to a maze, noted Science Alert. If the exit was moved, the mice found it more quickly if they were drugged to forget the location of the old exit.
So next time you’re struggling at the pub quiz, fear not. Your brain might just be waiting for more useful information.