Forgetting is part of remembering

October 18, 2011

It's time for forgetting to get some respect, says Ben Storm, author of a new article on memory in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "We need to rethink how we're talking about forgetting and realize that under some conditions it actually does play an important role in the function of memory," says Storm, who is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

" is difficult. Thinking is difficult," Storm says. Memories and associations accumulate rapidly. "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," he says.

But, fortunately, that isn't what happens. "We're able to get around these strong competing inappropriate memories to remember the ones we want to recall." Storm and other psychological scientists are trying to understand how our minds select the right things to recall—if someone's talking about beaches near Omaha, Nebraska, for example, you will naturally suppress any knowledge you've collected about Omaha Beach in Normandy.

In one kind of experiment, participants are given a list of words that have some sort of relation to each other. They might be asked to memorize a list of birds, for example. In the next part of the test, they have to do a task that requires remembering half the birds. "That's going to make you forget the other half of the birds in that list," Storm says. That might seem bad—it's forgetting. "But what the research shows is that this forgetting is actually a good thing."

People who are good at forgetting information they don't need are also good at problem solving and at remembering something when they're being distracted with other information. This shows that forgetting plays an important role in problem solving and memory, Storm says.

There are plenty of times when makes sense in daily life. "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 asks. Or where you parked your car this morning—it's important information today, but you'd better forget it when it comes time to go get your car for tomorrow afternoon's commute. "We need to be able to update our memory so we can remember and think about the things that are currently relevant."

Explore further: Eggs, butter, milk -- memory is not just a shopping list

Related Stories

Eggs, butter, milk -- memory is not just a shopping list

May 23, 2011

Often, the goal of science is to show that things are not what they seem to be. But now, in an article which will be published in an upcoming issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for ...

Testing improves memory

June 15, 2011

"We've known for over 100 years that testing is good for memory," says Kent State University psychology graduate student Kalif Vaughn. Psychologists have proven in a myriad of experiments that "retrieval practice"—correctly ...

New research shows that we control our forgetfulness

July 5, 2011

Have you heard the saying "You only remember what you want to remember"? Now there is evidence that it may well be correct. New research from Lund University in Sweden shows that we can train ourselves to forget things.

Illusory memories can have salutary effects

October 5, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- “False memories tend to get a bad rap,” says developmental psychologist Mark L. Howe, of Lancaster University in England. Indeed, remembering events incorrectly or remembering events that didn’t ...

Recommended for you

Serious research into what makes us laugh

November 24, 2015

More complex jokes tend to be funnier but only up to a point, Oxford researchers have found. Jokes that are too complicated tend to lose the audience.

Psychologists dispute continuum theory of sexual orientation

November 19, 2015

Washington State University researchers have established a categorical distinction between people who are heterosexual and those who are not. By analyzing the reported sexual behavior, identity and attraction of more than ...

Babies have logical reasoning before age one, study finds

November 18, 2015

Human infants are capable of deductive problem solving as early as 10 months of age, a new study by psychologists at Emory University and Bucknell finds. The journal Developmental Science is publishing the research, showing ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
" People who are good at forgetting information they don't need are also good at problem solving and at remembering something when they're being distracted with other information. "

We chefs refer to this as " putting it on the back burner ".
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
This makes a lot of sense when I think about it. There is temporary aquisition of knowledge, based, I guess, on immediate priority, and a minimum requirement for association by memory..(?)

Maybe why we don't need to be able to do something like triple integrals or partial differentials in our heads, as long as we understand when they need to be applied, we can put it on paper/computer, but there's no need to memorize every little detail.
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
I can relate to this. I always forget many things, but when a topic comes up i seem to recall things i don't remember learning... its amazing. I also tend to look up problems so i can find a solution to them., i wrote down many things because i am afraid i would forget. but sometimes i recall things at certain situations, and later i think how the hell did i know that.
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
...i don't remember learning... - kaasinees

Sometimes snippets taken out of context says it all.

Imagine remembering how you learned to put meaning to sound.
Then all language barriers cease to exist.
not rated yet Oct 19, 2011
I equate it to a "filing" system in the brain. It's not that one "forgets", one just moves the data in a lower file cabinet. I see it a lot when I switch from one language to another, being fortunate enough to know 6 languages, utterly amazing. My observation is that there is a "prompt" or "switch" that moves certain data on or off, up and down. What's cool is the fact that it is instantaneous. There is still so much we need to understand about the workings of the mind, hen you yisi... tres genial!!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.