The Brain: Forgetting So We Remember, Avoiding Overload

ABC:
We accumulate so many memories that it’s a wonder our brains don’t clog, strangling us on the trivia of our daily lives. How do we recall the memories that are important to us without flooding our brains with the details of every insignificant event? How do we separate the memories we need from the mountains of garbage?

According to ongoing research, we separate the wheat from the chaff by shutting down some memories, at least temporarily, to allow that one chosen treasure to resurface. In short, we forget, so we can remember.

New research into “retrieval-induced forgetting,” an awkward phrase that is easily forgotten, is reshaping much of what we have known about how memories are organized and retrieved. Psychologists Benjamin C. Storm of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Robert A. Bjork of UC Berkeley, along with other cognitive scientists around the world, have produced some potentially game-changing results.

In laymen’s language, the research suggests the healthy human brain comes equipped with something like a super-smart Web browser. A cue that should trigger the retrieval of a specific memory also allows the browser temporarily to suppress many memories that are similar to the target, but not precise enough.

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