The positive side of purging minutiae from your memory
I may owe my kids an apology. When asked what they did each day, it’s not uncommon to hear “I dunno,” or “I forget,” which I took as some sort proto-teenage, anti-social attempt to avoid talking with their parents. According to research in memory transience, or forgetfulness, I should probably cut them some slack. Not only is there evidence that young kids may have a harder time managing their memories, but that it’s also part of how our brains stay healthy and functional.
The mechanism that may be rendering my children speechless at dinner (as far as polite conversation goes) is that their brains are actually being disrupted by growing bigger. New neurons in the hippocampus, where a lot of memory management takes place, may be growing at a rate that connections between existing memories get altered or overwritten. As circuits of information are remodeled, it’s just harder to recall what they used to be encoding.
Forgetting not as a bug, but a feature
When new cells aren’t popping up, there’s still a good chance your brain is letting go of various details about your experiences. Synaptic connections between neurons, especially those that aren’t used on a regular basis, are routinely weakened or eliminated as we live our life. This kind of transience can feel annoying when you become aware missing a specific idea, but researchers believe that it’s a benefit in the long run. Without dropping some details from our memories, there’s a good chance that we’d have a harder time navigating the world and making decisions about what to do next.
The kind of memories that end up being preserved are those that fit bigger patterns. Smaller moments that only occur once get sort of smoothed over in this process, unless they’re somehow reinforced to build towards a bigger framework. It may seem problematic to forget certain details, but survival doesn’t necessarily need a mental log of every moment of your life. Instead, certain memories are brought into focus, and patterns can be used to predict new outcomes in order to help us make successful choices on a daily basis. I may want to know exactly what art project my four-year-old did at preschool, but his brain is probably more concerned with remembering the cutting, gluing and painting skills it took to make it.
Source: Forgetting Can Make You Smarter by Eva Voinigescu, Canadian Institute For Advanced Research