Your Brain is Built to Forget

Have you ever forgotten where you put your phone? Or maybe you misplace your keys? You might consider this a problem in need of fixing. Memory aids and brain boosts are available by the truckload. Apps advertise how to retain more and keep your brain fit. However, it turns out that your brain is built to forget. In fact, the natural state of many animals is to forget.

Memory is Clutter

We are constantly bombarded with mental stimuli every day — a whole cavalcade or trivial sensations and thoughts. Not every single one is worth saving. It’s essential for us to dial down the noise of information.

Forgetting allows us to process and consider the bits of information we do decide to keep. A balanced amount of forgetting can give us mental flexibility. We can prioritize and make sound decisions. 

Think of it like emptying the cache on your web browser or dumping unused apps from your phone. Everything speeds up. 

Research suggests that our ability to forget can be intentional. This means you can take an active part in purging your mind of clutter. We can train our brain to forget. 

Our Memory is a Long Shelf

Professor John Anderson suggested that our memory functions like a long shelf, stacked with books, each one a memory. You can find anything if given enough time. Except this shelf is infinitely long and the farther back you go, the longer it will take to locate the idea you’re searching for.

A well-functioning memory has the most important books of memory right at the front where they can be easily reached. Trivial details can be sent down the line, out of the way. 

Let Go of Grudges with Mindfulness

One way to actively forget is to make a conscious choice to let go of past resentments. Easier said than done. To start, you need to give up the idea of being the “wronged” person. Grudges and resentments are the kind of memory we should want to release. 

When these unwanted memories plague your thoughts, meditation and mindfulness can help you put them aside. These techniques focus the mind on the present moment and send past worries and future concerns farther down your mental bookcase. 

Make Mistakes on Purpose

I know, all of us want to avoid mistakes whenever possible. Yet this creates a negative feedback loop in our brain that associates certain activities with feelings of fear of disappointment. 

I know that when I perform any sort of music in front of even one person I seize up and suddenly all sorts of mistakes crop up. I associate playing in public with embarrassment. 

Yet a shift of attitude helps. I can make mistakes on purpose and now these situations take on a new, fun flavor. I still want to be able to play well, but I’m not as nervous about performing. I’ve filed the embarrassing emotions much farther down my infinite memory bookshelf. 

Take Time to Nap

Sleep is a time when your brain consolidates memories. Think of this as your memory librarian, sorting and organizing your thoughts and feelings. Trouble is, most of us only have a part-time librarian, who is dreadfully overworked. A few naps can give your brain extra time to organize the vital memories from the trivial. 

Short naps have been touted as methods to boost energy. However, it’s the longer naps that really allow your brain to organize your thoughts. A longer sleep activates the hippocampus, the area related to learning and memory. A one or two hour afternoon nap can increase your ability to recall important facts and details. In other words, your personal librarian gets and assistant to sort through all your files. 

The next time you forget where you put something, relax. This is just your brain telling your that it has shifted more important ideas to the front of you bookshelf — like creative projects or artistic endeavors. 

Tim Kane

Monthly Mental Kitchen

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