Being forgetful is actually a sign you are intelligent, claims study
Being forgetful sucks. It can seriously get in the way of your day to day life when it comes to important things you have to remember - or can just be really, really awkward. If you're meeting your boyfriend's parents for the third time and their names completely slip from your mind, it can be a nerve-wracking experience.
If you, like me, have a lot of problems with your memory, it can be easy to get down on yourself about it - and jealous of all those smart people with perfect ones. However, it turns out that not only is forgetfulness not a sign of a lack of intelligence, but it might just mean that you're smarter.
Research published in the journal Neuron in 2017 revealed that forgetting things is both commonplace, and something which improves our cognitive ability. Paul Frankland and Blake Richards, from the University of Toronto, found that the purpose of our memory is not to remember details, but to optimise intelligent decision-making, retaining only the information that is valuable to us.
When we forget something, that isn't a malfunction - but a way for the brain to purge itself of unnecessary memories, prioritising the creation of a general big picture that's easier to understand. One of the studies on mice found that, when new brain cells are formed in the hippocampus, old memories and connections in the brain are overwritten.
One of the authors of the study, Blake Richards, 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.
"We know that exercise increases the number of neurons in the hippocampus, but they’re exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions.
“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.
“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."
In the past, the focus in the study of memory has primarily been about the persistence of memory, but this may be changing.
“Recent studies have considered the neurobiology of forgetting (transience),” the paper says. “We propose that it is the interaction between persistence and transience that allows for intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments."
“Specifically, we argue that transience enhances flexibility, by reducing the influence of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making, and prevents over-fitting to specific past events, thereby promoting generalization.
“According to this view, the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se.
“Rather, the goal of memory is to optimise decision-making. As such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic [memory] systems.”
Forgetting specific details may be frustrating, but when we remember the larger picture of past events, we can generalise our experiences. This, the research suggests, is actually a sign of a healthy memory system.
However, it doesn't make it any less awkward when you can't remember Mark and Sue's names.