Many people worry that forgetting names, facts or tasks on their to-do list is a sign of aging or mental decline.
A growing body of research offers a more welcome excuse: Forgetting stuff can actually be a byproduct of rigorous thinking, smooth decision-making or heightened creativity.
Forgetting can help us block out useless or outdated information and keep us from fixating on a single set of ideas or thoughts. And contrary to the notion that forgetfulness reflects a withering of brain cells, scientists say it can actually be driven by the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region linked to memory.
This doesn’t excuse major memory mishaps. It’s a problem to draw a mental blank when making a presentation, forget to pick up a co-worker you promised a ride or offend a client by spacing out on a critical rule of etiquette. And of course, purposeful forgetting doesn’t include the kind of extensive memory loss that comes with dementia or similar health problems.
Still, forgetting can serve a purpose, enabling us to think more clearly by eliminating interference from competing thoughts.
This pattern is called retrieval-induced forgetting. It’s directed in part by the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions involved in mental control and decision-making. It makes it easier to access memories that get used a lot, and more difficult to retrieve memories that compete with them, says Michael C. Anderson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in England and a leading researcher on the topic.
He likens the process to search-engine optimization for the brain. “The brain balances remembering and forgetting gracefully to facilitate optimal use of memory,” Dr. Anderson says.
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