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Forgetting may be integral to helping our brain remember

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THERE are few things more frustrating than trying to recall a fact or memory and finding it has gone missing. You might ask yourself whether it is the start of mental decline or the onset of a degenerative brain condition. What you probably don’t think is that forgetting is a good thing. But it can be. New research into memory suggests that it is actually a healthy and necessary brain function – and one that is becoming increasingly important in our rapidly changing lives. “You want to be able to adapt to your environment because your environment is always changing. But if you’re overly fixated on your first experience, you’re not going to behave adaptively,” says Tomás Ryan at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. Intriguingly, his research also hints that forgotten memories remain in the brain, so could, if necessary, be restored.

Everyday forgetting – like not being able to recall what you ate for dinner last week – is called natural forgetting. This is in contrast to pathological forgetting, which results from brain injuries or conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Far from being a problem, natural forgetting underpins one of our most unique and powerful traits – our ability to generalise. Though there are times when having an ultra-detailed memory is invaluable, like when revising for exams or acting as a witness to a crime, we can’t generalise without playing fast and loose with specifics, says Edwin Robertson at the University of Glasgow, UK. “For a chair to be thought of as a chair,…

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