Neuroscience: Why is forgetting beneficial?

Neuroscience: Why is forgetting beneficial?
Neuroscience: Why is forgetting beneficial?

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Our imperfect memories have good sides.
Article information
  • Author, By David Robson
  • Role, BBC Future
  • 57 minutes ago

Imperfect memory and false memories are essential elements of a flexible mind, neuroscientist Charan Ranganath argues in a new book. David Robson asks him why.

“Memory,” writes neuroscientist Charan Ranganath in his new book Why We Remember, “is much more than an archive of the past; it is the prism through which we see ourselves, others, and the world.” .

A professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, Ranganath has spent the past 30 years studying the brain processes that underlie our ability to remember, recall and forget. He argues that many of our preconceived ideas about memory are wrong; its apparent flaws often arise from its most useful characteristics, creating cognitive flexibility essential to our survival.

He spoke with science journalist David Robson about this cutting-edge understanding of the brain and how we can use this knowledge to take better advantage of our perfectly imperfect minds.

Your book is full of counterintuitive notions. Let’s start with the idea of ​​”learning by making mistakes.” Why do we learn better when we allow ourselves to make mistakes?

Memories are formed through changes in the strength of connections between neurons. However, some of these connections will not be optimal, while others will be stronger and more efficient. The principle of learning by error is simply that when you try to retrieve these memories, your memory will always be a little imperfect. So when the brain tries to retrieve that memory and compare it to the real information, these networks can weaken the bad connections and strengthen the good ones.

This means that the best way to learn more is to challenge ourselves to rediscover the material we are trying to learn, as this exposes these weaknesses and therefore gives our brains a chance to optimize these memories. This is why active learning techniques—like driving around a neighborhood instead of looking it up on Google Maps, or acting in a play instead of reading the script over and over—are so effective.

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Our wonderfully imperfect memory gives us our sense of identity.

Many of us feel frustrated by memory lapses, but you argue that forgetting is often beneficial. How is it possible ?

An analogy I like to make is to imagine going to your house and asking you: why aren’t you a hoarder? Why don’t you store everything? If we forgot nothing, we would accumulate memories and we would never be able to find what we want, when we want it.

Right now, I’m staying in a hotel, and it wouldn’t make sense for me to remember the number of this room in two weeks. Likewise, think about all the people you pass on the street. Do you really need to memorize all their faces?

Why do forgetfulness increase with age?

The problem as we get older is not necessarily that we fail to form memories, but that we fail to focus on the information we need to remember. We become more distracted, and all these trivial things come at the expense of the important information that interests us. So when we try to recall these memories, we fail to find the information we are looking for.

What strategies can we use to avoid this and improve the quality of our memories?

There are three basic principles. The first is distinctiveness. Our memories compete with each other and, therefore, the more you can make something stand out, the better. Vivid memories associated with unique sights, sounds and sensations are the ones that will be remembered. Focusing on sensory details, rather than keeping them in our heads, helps us remember better.

The second strategy is to encourage better organization of your memories to give them more meaning. In the book, I discuss the “memory palace” method, which involves associating the information you want to learn with the information you already have.

Third, we can create clues. Searching for a souvenir takes a lot of effort and is prone to errors; it’s better if the memories simply come to mind. It is best for memories to come to mind. Creating benchmarks can help with this.

We know, for example, that songs can naturally evoke memories of particular periods in our lives. And there are many other daily clues you can use. If I’m trying to remember to take out the trash on collection day, I imagine walking up to the door, then looking at the trash can before walking over. So when I get to the door in real life, it will signal to me that I need to take out the trash.

Photo credit, Getty Images

Image caption, Daily cues can boost memory.

In addition to losing our memory, we may find that our memories contain erroneous details that do not correspond to real events. Why is this happening?

We have “schemas” that help us remember economically. Imagine you’ve just gone to the bank: you already have a lot of knowledge about the types of events that happen at the bank and the types of things that don’t happen there. This allows you to narrow down the range of information you need to remember, with patterns acting as the connective tissue that allows you to take in this new information. [données] and apply them. But sometimes the diagrams fill in too many gaps, with wrong details.

The second reason is that memories change over time. This is very important because you want to be able to refresh your memories. If you saw a relative you haven’t seen in a long time and their face has changed from the first time you saw them, you need to create a more accurate memory of their appearance. But sometimes our imagination seeps into memory.

How is memory a collaborative process?

When we share memories with other people, those memories can be updated. When I explain an event to you, making up that story to tell you can change the way I remember it. Your reactions to the way I tell the story, for example, will shape how I remember it later; the story may become more humorous.

You may also be giving me additional – but incorrect – information that may seep into my memory: I’m confusing what really happened with what you told me while I was explaining what happened. had passed. I would say that many of our memories are no more [purement] ours – they are collective memories.

How has your scientific research influenced your relationship with your own memories?

Writing the book, in particular, inspired me to preserve my memory. I now try to exercise regularly and pay close attention to my diet, to ensure that I maintain my cognitive health in old age.

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Why We Remember by Charan Ranganath is published by Faber & Faber (UK) and Doubleday (US).

*David Robson is an award-winning science writer and author. His upcoming book is called The Laws of Connection: 13 Social Strategies That Will Transform Your Life. It will be published by Canongate (UK) and Pegasus Books (US and Canada) in June 2024.

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