A.2.17 – Forgetting

Defined Words: unimportant, forgetting, long term memory


If you lived in a small apartment with only one table, you will probably use that table a lot. You might eat a meal, work on your computer, do a Sudoku in the newspaper, put together a model kit, and solve a jigsaw puzzle. A single afternoon of activities is enough to cover the table to the point where it’s difficult to find space for more activities. In order to continue using the table, you’ll have to clear off the unused items. Some of those items you can toss in the trash, others you’ll probably want to store elsewhere.

Your brain works in a similar manner to the table: you only have the ability to hold so much information at the same time. The unimportant information that we gather, information that is not synapsed much, is wiped from the neurons in a process called forgetting. The better synapsed and solidified information will be accessible at a later time; we call it long term memory.

It might be annoying to forget a meeting or due date for a project, but it’s important to see the adaptations of your brain for the advantage they offer. I want you to try and think about your morning. Think about the food you ate for breakfast, the stuff in the room with you, the pictures on the walls or the view out the window. You probably can’t recreate all of it, and that’s just fine!

If you were unable to forget, you would have memories stored for every second of your life which would really clutter things up. You might try to remember a specific thought but every neural path synapsed to any stimulus would fire if that stimulus is detected. You would get buried in your own thoughts and never get anything done!

You are constantly gathering information with your sensory organs and although a single glance at a rock gives you visual information, you might choose to not synapse it any further than “it is a rock.” As your communicative cells determine which memory to wipe, the visual information of that particular rock is so poorly synapsed to other neural paths that it is deemed unimportant. Forgetting is based on a “use it or lose it” system. If you want to remember something, expand the neural cluster to further solidify the idea.

Conversely, if you want to forget something, you probably won’t until you stop actively thinking about forgetting it. In order to accomplish this, it is easiest to use a distraction. It makes sense; if you want to forget about a bad day at work you distract yourself with television. Your brain is now working hard to interpret all of the constantly changing images and sounds and doesn’t have the available resources to solidify details about your bad day. The bad memories will be less accessible to you and will eventually be forgotten. “Time heals all wounds” because at some point during that time, you’ll get distracted.

Every night, you spend at least a few hours constructing entire worlds for your consciousness to perceive in the form of dreams. Luckily, before you wake up, your brain has wiped all that information in order to fully perceive the real world. You wouldn’t want to dream of an underwater world, wake up, and think you’re still underwater. Maybe you would because that sounds kind of fun; but to your survival-oriented ancestors, that sounds horrifying!

The ability to forget also allows our brains to be “infinite.” I used quotation marks here because our brains do not have the ability to hold an infinite amount of information at the same time. Rather, you have the potential to learn an unlimited amount of information because you don’t have to hold onto unimportant or redundant information like a computer would.

You are an astonishingly well adapted organism and forgetting is part of what makes you so great! Forgetfulness is so often the enemy when we consider our lives in schools or jobs, having to remember specific facts that differentiate success from failure. This is a part of the process of accepting yourself: accepting the parts that you might not always like and forgetting harmful thoughts about those parts.

Your ability to forget plays an incredibly important role in the functioning of your most impressive organ: your brain. And as a bonus, accepting your natural tendency to forget helps you live in the moment. If you forget something, oh well! Life only moves forward and if you spend your time searching for memories, you might miss out on right now.

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