How Your Bad Memory Can Be Good for You

A new report concludes that forgetting things may be your brain’s way of optimizing information.

From an evolutionary standpoint, exchanging old memories for new ones can enable us to better adapt to new situations by not relying on outdated information.

It’s time to stop beating yourself up over your Swiss-cheese memory.

After looking at years of data on memory, memory loss, and brain activity in both humans and animals, University of Toronto researchers Paul Frankland and Blake Richards have concluded that forgetting things is not only normal, it can make us smarter. The two suggest that the goal of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but rather to help make intelligent decisions. And we’re better able to do that by letting go of what’s not important.

It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.

“It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world,” Richards told Time Health. As Frankland’s studies in mice indicated, when new brain cells are formed, they “overwrite” old memories and make them harder to access. From an evolutionary standpoint, exchanging old memories for new ones can enable us to better adapt to new situations by not relying on outdated information.

“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up conflicting memories,” Richards said, “that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.”

Forgetting specific details about past events while still remembering the big picture, the researchers said, makes it easier for us to generalize previous experiences and better apply them to current situations.

So, go ahead and feel better about your intellect the next time you watch “Jeopardy!” Or whatever that game show is called.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.