You can relax if remembering everything is not your strong suit. Recent research makes the case that being forgetful can be a strength — in fact, selective memory can even be a sign of stronger intelligence.
Traditional research on memory has focused on the advantages of remembering everything. But looking through years of recent memory data, researchers Paul Frankland and Blake Richards of the University of Toronto found that the neurobiology of forgetting can be just as important to our decision-making as what our minds choose to remember.
“The goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. As such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic systems,” their study in Neuron states.
Making intelligent decisions does not mean you need to have all the information at hand, it just means you need to hold onto the most valuable information. And that means clearing up space in your memory palace for the most up-to-date information on clients and situations. Our brains do this by generating new neurons in our hippocampus, which have the power to overwrite existing memories that are influencing our 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,” Richards told Science Daily.
If you want to increase the number of new neurons in our brain’s learning region, try exercising. Moderate aerobic exercise like jogging, power walking, and swimming have been found to increase the number of neurons making important connections in our brains.
When we forget the names of certain clients and details about old jobs, our brain is making a choice that these details do not matter. Although too much forgetfulness can be a cause for concern, the occasional lost detail can be a sign of a perfectly healthy memory system. The researchers found that our brains facilitate decision-making by stopping us from focusing too much on minor past details. Instead, the brain promotes generalization, helping us remember the most important gist of a conversation.
“One of the things that distinguishes an environment where you’re going to want to remember stuff versus an environment where you want to forget stuff is this question of how consistent the environment is and how likely things are to come back into your life,” Richards said.
If you’re an analyst who meets with a client weekly, your brain will recognize that this is a client whose name and story you need to remember. If this is someone you may never meet again, your brain will weigh that information accordingly.
We can get critiqued for being absent-minded when we forget past events in perfect detail. These findings show us that total recall can be overrated. Our brains are working smarter when they aim to remember the right stories, not every story.