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How Being Forgetful Helps Your Brain

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 7 Dec 2012 | comments*Discuss
Memory Brain Skills Hippocampus

We all want a better memory but sometimes, it is actually better to be forgetful. Researchers found that by storing old memories, a person could be more likely to forget something important such as a doctor's appointment or a grocery item they have run out of recently.

How Memory Functions

The problem as researchers see it is that if a person has too many long-term memories, it becomes much harder to properly filter new data you take in and experience as well as short-term memories.

If you think about a typical day for most people, they are absolutely bombarded with information and experiences. Trying to process it all and make sense of the information means having to filter out some information. What would happen if you didn't filter it? You would probably be completely overwhelmed and it would come at a cost in terms of your ability to remember new things.

A Better Working Memory

When researchers investigated how memory works, they looked at people who show a better working memory. They found that these people seemed to have a smaller number of new neurons that were developing in their hippocampus region. This is a part of the brain that is important in helping you create new memories.

By forgetting older information that was essentially useless and irrelevant to survival today, a person was better able to assimilate new information. The result is a better working memory that can improve how people function each day and remember the tasks at hand.

Remembering Just Enough Information Each Day

Also interesting is that if you think about previous research, we had originally thought that the growth of neurons in the hippocampus was actually helpful to a person's memory. This newer study clearly shows the opposite to be true. Here, working memory is improved, where the short-term memory is enhanced such that just enough information is remembered to ensure a person remembers their appointment or other task.

Performing Studies on Mice

Researchers tested out their ideas on groups of mice. These mice had to find food that was located inside a maze constructed by the researchers. Some of these mice had new neuron formation suppressed while other mice did not.

The mice that had the formation of new neurons suppressed were able to make significantly better choices. They also found the food much more quickly than the mice that did not have new neuron formation – known as neurogenesis – suppressed. The findings were surprising to the researchers mostly because we had always associated neurogenesis with improved short-term memory rather than the opposite.

It Helps to Be Forgetful Sometimes

Researchers have concluded that these surprising study results suggest that having too much memory isn't actually beneficial to one's overall cognition and life. The study results may even one day help people who have conditions affecting their memory. If neurogenesis is properly balanced, it can help people to improve their short-term memory while keeping only those older memories that are beneficial to current tasks and life.

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