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Scientifically Speaking | In praise of not remembering

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In Jorge Luis Borges’ masterful short story, Funes, the Memorious, readers are introduced to a memorable character who, by dint of suffering an accident, has lost the ability to forget. Funes can remember everything. He is a storehouse of facts and details that he recites instantaneously. He is akin to a living search engine.

It is something that all of us may have wished for at one point or other in our own lives. But to Funes, this condition is not a blessing, it is an affliction. In Borges’ story, Funes faces information overload. His brain is flooded with memories and is paralysed by thoughts.

It is only fitting then that Borges’ exemplary story is mentioned in Dr Scott Small’s new book, Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering. Dr Small is a neurologist who is the director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University in New York. He mentions that Borges’ story foreshadowed modern research on forgetting. Remembering everything is hardly desirable.

It is a refreshing idea also found in a perspective written in the scientific journal Neuron in 2017 by Blake Richards and Paul Frankland of the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children (Toronto). They tell us that there’s constant interaction between remembering and forgetting that allows us to make decisions in a world where there’s too much information. According to them “the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making.”

The crux of the matter is that creativity requires a balance between remembering and forgetting. Some of the most creative people in history were forgetful. Albert Einstein was notoriously forgetful and absent-minded. I must confess that I face a similar affliction without the countervailing intelligence to excuse my inability to remember. But as I tell chiding friends and family, it’s not that that I’m inattentive. My attention is usually somewhere else.

Remembering is an act of filtering what we pay attention to, since there is constantly a barrage of stimuli hitting our senses. And since we cannot store every memory, we must choose what we pay attention to and to what we try to remember.

Some memories are needed to be able to form unique associations that are thought to be key to the creative process. But too much information can hamper creativity by leaving no cognitive room for the unexpected. As the saying goes, when we remember too much, we run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. The very specific becomes the enemy of the ability to generalise.

After a traumatic incident, forgetting can be a part of the process of resuming normal life. Dr Small notes that seeing the face of a bully decades later might trigger earlier responses. Fearful associations seem to have salience. He notes that negative emotions tend to stick longer.

Not being able to forget emotional distress and fear causes sustained anxiety. Post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) is a condition in which the ability to remember certain events is disadvantageous. One of the ways to deal with PTSD is to allow the person to forget the debilitating details of their trauma.

Dr Small is careful to make the distinction between pathological memory loss (such as that experienced during Alzheimer’s disease and dementia) and more routine forgetting. Indeed, there is a “good forgetting” that is beneficial to well-being that we must contrast from the “bad forgetting” which we associate with not being able to function properly.

But what is worth remembering is that just as there is a mechanism for creating memories, there is also a process for dismantling them. Not all forgetting is pathological or a result of faulty memory. There’s a biological system to enable normal forgetting. This “forgetting toolbox” works in tandem with our “memory toolbox”. The act of sleeping plays a part in strengthening memories, and it might also be the time when a lot of “smart forgetting” happens too.

Those with truly “photographic” or eidetic memory are very rare. People can improve memory only within the constraints of their own biology. In that way, memory is like height in that there’s a distribution of people with different natural abilities, and each of us falls somewhere on the curve. There are, of course, those with truly superior memory who can recall all the notes in a piece of music or the various combinations on a chessboard that they’ve faced before. But that is not something that the rest of us will achieve through apps or memory tricks.

“Forgetting is a cognitive gift,” writes Dr Small, and it’s a positive way to look at something that, as we get older, we tend to dread daily.

Anirban Mahapatra, a scientist by training, is the author of COVID-19: Separating Fact From Fiction

The views expressed are personal 

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