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Let's Reminisce: The benefits of forgetfulness
By Jerry Lincecum
Feb 5, 2019
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A favorite topic of discussion among the retirees in my lunch bunch is absent-mindedness.  As one ex-professor put it, “Often I walk into the next room and ask myself, “What was it I came in here to do?”  Others lament showing up for a doctor’s appointment on the wrong day and having to reschedule.  Worried about  memory loss as a sign of mental decay, we have never discussed the benefits of forgetfulness.

In fact I was astonished to read recently that research has shown that forgetting things can actually be a byproduct of clear thinking, smooth decision-making or even creativity.  It can help us block out useless or outdated information and keep us from obsessing about a single set of ideas.

And most shocking of all, contrary to the idea that forgetfulness reflects a withering of brain cells, scientists say it can actually result from the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is linked to memory.

This doesn’t excuse major memory mistakes. It’s a problem to draw a mental blank when making a presentation or forgetting to pick up a friend you promised a ride.  And we’re certainly not talking about the kind of major memory loss that comes with dementia.

But it’s a great relief to me to understand that forgetting can serve a purpose, enabling us to think more clearly by eliminating interference from competing thoughts.  This idea is reinforced by a case study I read about recently in a book entitled “Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains,” by Helen Thomsen.

Thomsen spent two years traveling around the world to study people who have unusual brains. A man named Bob suffers from total recall: he can remember every day of his life.  He can pick a date at random and tell you what the day of the week was and what he was doing that day.  If he sees a date flash on the TV screen, his memory goes to work recalling what happened that day.  It is nonstop and exhausting, illustrating the problem of having too good a memory and never forgetting anything.

Forgetting prevents a memory problem called interference, which causes
you to recall incorrect information because it’s so close to the memory you want. This happens when, for example, you mix up the names of people who play similar roles—calling your current student, whose name is Mark, by the name of your student from last year, Mike, or when you suffer the tip-of-the-tongue syndrome, unable to recall a word or name because your memory of a similar one is blocking it.

Forgetting also helps solve another thinking problem called fixation, a
blind adherence to ideas, solutions or patterns that already exist.  By clearing the mind of old ideas, forgetting can make way for fresh thinking.  If you forget about a recommendation you wrote for someone two years ago, when it comes time to write another one you can start afresh and maybe write a better one.

To sum up, memories slip away for a variety of reasons that have little to do with physical health.  1. Other, similar memories compete for our attention.  2. We fail to access the information soon or often enough. 3. The memory threatens a valued relationship.  4. The memory evokes unpleasant emotions such as guilt or sadness.  5. The information threatens to undermine valued beliefs.  6. The experience threatens our self-image.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com