Forgetting helps memory

Forgetting helps memory

By Liz Lockhart

In some circumstances, forgetting plays an important role in the function of memory, according to a new study.  Many sufferers from poor mental health suffer from difficulty with memory.  There are many different reasons for this but this study sheds light and reassurance about why we forget certain pieces of information.

Ben Storm, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Illinois Chicago says that it is time for forgetting to get some respect. 

‘Memory is difficult.  Thinking is difficult,’ Storm said.

The new study is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Memories and associations build up very quickly.  ‘These things could completely overrun our life and make it impossible to learn and retrieve new things if they were left alone, and could just overpower the rest of memory,’ said Storm.

‘We are able to get around these strong competing, inappropriate memories to remember the ones we want to recall,’ he added.

Storm, along with other psychological scientists, is trying to understand how our minds select the right recollections.  If someone is talking about beaches near Omaha in Nebraska, as an example, you will naturally suppress any knowledge you’ve collected about Omaha Beach in Normandy.

Participants in the study were given a list of words that had a relationship to each other.  As an example they may have been asked to memorise a list of birds.

They were then required to complete a task that needs the participants to remember half the birds.  ‘That’s going to make you forget the other half of the birds in that list,’ says Storm.

This may seem to be a bad thing because it involves forgetting, ‘But what the research shows is that this forgetting is actually a good thing,’ Storm says.

This means that people who are good at forgetting information which they don’t require are also good at remembering something when they are being distracted with other information.  It also indicates that these individuals are good at problem-solving.

Forgetting does make sense in daily life and there a many times when this applies.

‘Say you get a new cell phone and you have to get a new phone number. Do you really want to remember your old phone number every time someone asks what your number is?’ Storm said.

Another example would be remembering where you parked your car this morning after your daily commute to work.  This is only important information today.  You won’t need to remember this when you get your car tomorrow.

‘We need to be able to update our memory so we can remember and think about the things that are currently relevant,’ he said.

Source: Association for Psychological Science 

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