Forgetting helps us make smarter decisions, according to a study

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Robert Maurer

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Are you one of those people who only catch the essentials and forget the details? Science discovers that what was commonly considered a "bad memory" could actually be a very useful mechanism to help us make smarter and more adaptive decisions.

"In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important as remembering," psychologist William James wrote in the past. Now researchers at the University of Toronto have taken up this idea to develop a new theory on the importance of forgetting.

More is not always better

Difficulty remembering certain things has always been considered a memory defect, a failure in the information storage and retrieval system. This is because we think of memory as a static store of information and memories in which losing something equates to a deficiency.

In recent decades, it has been discovered that memory is a much more complex cognitive function, not just a reservoir of information. In fact, the main function of memory is to help us optimize decision making. It allows us to use our experiences and the information we have stored to evaluate the consequences of different alternatives and choose the most convenient.

However, accumulating too much information does not guarantee us to make the best decisions. Indeed, in some cases it can even be counterproductive. The researchers indicate that “persistence of memory applied to transient or unusual aspects of the transient world is harmful, as it can lead to inflexible behavior and / or erroneous predictions. Persistence is only useful when it retains those aspects of the experience that are relatively stable and / or predict new experiences. "

This means that we must eliminate from our archive all irrelevant information that could affect the decision-making process, bringing out unnecessary details. By eliminating information that is not important, the brain can devote more cognitive resources to making decisions and it will do so more quickly.

How do remembering and forgetting work?

To bring out a memory or information, a reactivation of the neurons that were active at the time the coding took place is produced. That is, our brains reactivate those synaptic connections. This is called "persistence".

Conversely, forgetfulness implies an alteration, modification or destabilization of these synaptic connections. And this is called "transience". And it is in that precise moment that forgetfulness occurs or that memories are "contaminated".

The interesting thing is that a stimulating environment promotes neurogenesis in the hippocampus, even in adults. As these new neurons mature, they begin to continually connect and remodel the circuits of the hippocampus. This restructuring process is competitive, which means that the new connections replace the old ones, the ones that are no longer meaningful.

The balance between this process of persistence and transience is precisely what allows us to make smarter decisions.

How does forgetting help us make smarter decisions?

Why does our brain use so much energy to store memories and then erase them? How is it that forgetting allows us to make better decisions?

On the one hand, it must be borne in mind that in a world that is constantly changing, many of the data we have stored quickly becomes obsolete, so it is important to replace it with more current content.

If we respond to the challenges of today's environment with outdated information, our response will not be adaptive, but it will likely cause us problems. To avoid this and make room in our memory, we need to be able to "erase" unnecessary information that has become obsolete.

On the other hand, forgetfulness facilitates the so-called “regularization”, a process by which we limit the filing of irrelevant details to prioritize generalizations that allow us to make decisions quickly. That is, our memory works like this: first we collect a lot of information, which is useful for drawing conclusions, but once we have made that generalization, we no longer need the details and we erase them.

In this way, when we need to make a decision, we do not have to access all the details, but only the generalization we have come to. This resource economy allows us to activate another type of information relevant to decision making and, of course, helps us decide faster because we get straight to the point.


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