A stereotype frequently referenced in regards to forgetful people is that of Thales of Miletus, dating back to Ancient Greece. The story goes that as he was so focused on observing the night sky, he fell down a well. One of the greatest minds in recent history, Albert Einstein was likened to the cliché of the ‘absent-minded professor.’
This combination of intelligence and forgetfulness has long puzzled neuroscientists as a bad memory was seen as a failure of the brain’s mechanism for storing and retrieving information.
The amalgamation of intelligence and forgetfulness seemed paradoxical to an array of neuroscientists who were of the belief that bad memory was seen as a failure of the brain’s ability to effectively store and receive information. Although, a paper recently published in the Neuron, based on extensive research into the subject, concludes that forgetting is essential to learning.
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It has been concluded that the purpose of our memory is not necessarily to retain facts, but to make intelligent decisions by retaining information that is valuable or relevant to one’s needs. When the brain forgets something, rather than being written off as a malfunction or a gap in the cognitive process, it can be viewed as an attempt to focus on something more important or perhaps simplify certain concepts.
Blake Richards, a professor at the University of Toronto who co-authored the paper, said, “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.
“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.” What information is discarded depends on the situation.
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“One of the things that distinguishes an environment where you're going to want to remember stuff versus an environment where you want to forget stuff is this question of how consistent the environment is and how likely things are to come back into your life,” Professor Richards said.
For example, someone like a supermarket cashier who meets many people every day will probably only remember them for a short time, while a barista working from their own coffee van would start to remember the regulars.
An example was given of a supermarket cashier who comes across many people along the course of their job, who they are unlikely to remember in the long run, whereas a barista working from their own coffee van would begin to recognise the regulars, sooner or later.
The paper in Neuron said the “predominant focus” in the study of memory had been on remembering or ‘persistence’.
“However, recent studies have considered the neurobiology of forgetting (transience),” the paper said.
This story originally appeared on The Independent
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