You’re running late for work. Despite all your evening preparation, you still find yourself scrambling out the door… because you forgot where you put your car keys! It’s moments like these that we don’t feel like a particularly smart person. With all the complex things we can remember to do like pay taxes and drive, how can we possibly forget things like where our keys are hiding?
We forget things for a number of reasons. Some are self-inflicted problems, like not putting our keys in the same place each day, or being distracted when we do set them down. However, what if I also told you that we forget things to make us smarter?
In today’s Fabulous Uncovers, we dive into the murky depths of memory to gain a better understanding of why we forget things and why it makes you a smart person to do so.
How Is a Memory Formed?
The brain is tricky to talk about because we don’t understand how it works yet. Brains are more complex than even the biggest or most powerful supercomputers. We don’t even know the maximum storage capacity of a brain. However, according to Scientific American, we estimate that a human brain can hold over two petabytes (or about 2 million gigabytes) of information. That’s three million hours of TV shows!
How can something the size of your fists hold all that storage? The billion or so neurons in our brain form thousands of connections to each other, resulting in over a trillion connections. This means your brain can work quickly to store and retrieve information.
But how is a memory actually formed? We don’t know for sure, but we have some idea of how it works.
The first step of memory formation is called encoding. Basically, when something happens we that need to remember, our brains take that information and make records of it. We can help encode memories by repeating things we need to remember, like a person’s name, or the phone number of your favorite pizza place.
Next, the brain consolidates those memories, moving them from the short-term memory to long-term memory so the information can be retrieved at a later time.
The final step is, of course, the retrieval. After all, it’s not a memory if you don’t ever remember it!
Why Do We Forget Things?
So if our brain works so hard to remember things, why do we forget them? It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? It’s actually not counter-intuitive at all! Our forgetfulness is easy to explain.
The first, which was mentioned earlier, is simple human error. Another, more important, reason is that forgetting things actually makes us smarter. Think of it like this: If you have a smartphone, it’s likely that your primary messaging app has a feature where it will auto-delete messages after a set number of days, or when a certain capacity has been reached. Your brain does the exact same thing with information. If you don’t retrieve information often enough, your brain will “delete” it to free up computing space for other, more important things. Put simply, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
With as much storage as a brain has, you’d think this wouldn’t be necessary, but remember that your body has a lot going on within it that you aren’t even aware of. You are digesting, breathing, pumping blood, and performing all sorts of other functions non-stop, all by the command of your brain. To operate something as complex as a human body, you need all the computing power you can get!
Forgetting unimportant stuff also frees up space for more important memories. This has an evolutionary advantage: Our prehistoric ancestors needed access to memories about where predators patrolled or what berries were safe to eat. Even now, it’s more important for us to remember what traffic signs mean than, say, what our favorite food was in elementary school.
How to Forget Intelligently
If you want to create memories that stick, you have to understand what makes memories slip away. We’ve learned that we forget things our brain deems unimportant. So, if we want to forget intelligently, we have to learn how to remember intelligently!
When you retrieve a memory, you create a neural pathway in your brain that allows your mind to access that information faster and with greater efficiency. Each subsequent retrieval strengthens that pathway, making it easier and easier for you to recall it. That’s why people remember song lyrics so well, despite the information not being “useful.” Each time you sing along, you’re strengthening that neural pathway!
So, if you want to remember something well, you have to retrieve that memory over and over again. Put your keys in the same place each day and tell yourself that you’ve put your keys there. Repeat the name of the person being introduced to you and use it in conversation as much as you can. Each repetition is another brick in your neural bridge.
We wouldn’t consider forgetting things to be good advice on how to be smart. But it’s not that you’re forgetting, but what you’re forgetting that matters. Forgetting things that don’t matter to you to make space for things that do makes for a very smart person indeed.