One of the most frustrating things we all experience is forgetfulness. When that important fact or point on our to-do list escapes the mind, it leaves us feeling a bit silly for not being able to remember it. According to science, however, this may actually be a good thing.
A recent study by the University of Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) claims that having a strong memory is not as great as we make it out to be. In fact, being forgetful may actually be a sign of intelligence.
It is often assumed that one’s inability to remember is a fault of the mechanisms involved in storing or recalling information. Much neurobiological research looks into these mechanisms, but there has been little attention paid to the cellular mechanisms involved in forgetting, known as transcience.
The study shows that the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a major role in learning and memory, seems to promote forgetting.
“We find plenty of evidence from recent research that there are mechanisms that promote memory loss, and that these are distinct from those involved in storing information,” says the paper’s co-author Paul Frankland, University of Toronto associate professor and senior scientist of neurosciences and mental health at SickKids.
Richards posits that our brains purposefully forget things to allow us to think clearer. He also suggests that our brains do this to prioritise core information necessary for decision making.
“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,” he said.
Professor Blake Richlan, a co-author for the study explains: “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.”
The researchers agree that memory is not a marker for intelligence, but rather for us to make informed decisions.
“We always idealize the person who can smash a trivia game, but the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972,” says Richards. “The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information.”