Being Forgetful Could Actually Make You Smarter

Korin Miller
Writer
(Photo: Getty Images)

“I want to be more forgetful!” said no one, ever, but a group of scientists now say that forgetfulness might not be as bad as you think—it could help your brain work more efficiently.

That’s the takeaway message from a new scientific review paper published in the journal Neuron. In the paper, researchers Paul Frankland, a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s Child & Brain Development program, and Blake Richards, an associate fellow in the Learning in Machines & Brains program, say that your brain works to forget some things you learn in order to make you smarter. According to the researchers, the goal of memory is actually to help guide and optimize your intelligent decision-making by only holding onto the valuable information you need.

The researchers also allege that forgetting things is just as important a part of your memory system as remembering. It works in two ways, they say: One is that forgetting allows you to adapt to new situations by helping you to let go of outdated and potentially wrong information, which can get in your way of helping you make a good, modern decision. The second is that forgetting helps decision-making by allowing you to generalize past events to new events. Basically, you may not remember every detail of the time you got badly stung by a jellyfish as a kid, but you probably remember that it wasn’t a good idea to stay in the water after you saw a jellyfish float by.

Amit Sachdev, MD, an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Beauty that this just makes sense. “Memory serves a biologic purpose,” he says. “At its most primitive sense, we are talking about things like locations of shelter and food and the territory of predators. Not every detail is mandatory.”

Your brain also has a limited capacity to store things, Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, a neurologist and neuro-oncologist and Chair of the Department of Translational Neuro-Oncology and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Beauty. “You want to be able to forget things that are not relevant for the future so that you can save space for the important memories,” he says.

Of course, there’s a difference between normal forgetfulness and a sign that you may be developing a serious condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. According to Sachdev, it’s considered normal if your forgetfulness doesn’t impact your day-to-day function. For example, maybe you forgot to grab your sunglasses on the way out this morning, but you were still able to deal.

But Kesari says you might want to check in with your doctor if you’re regularly forgetful and it’s impacting your work performance or loved ones have started complaining about it. Just don’t panic and assume you have early signs of dementia — he says forgetfulness can also be due to stress, a mood disorder, or endocrine issues. Just think about this ahead of time, per Sachdev: “You will need to go into that appointment being able to answer two big questions: How much do you have on your plate and how is your memory different today than a year ago?”

Again, some level of forgetfulness is normal. And, while annoying, it’s good to know that the next time you forget where you put your keys, it could simply be a sign that you’re getting smarter.

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