Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering to forget

If you’re like me, it seems that I’m awfully good at “forgetting” and not very good at “remembering”.

I’m good at forgetting:
  • Where I put my glasses
  • When I should return a library book
  • The passwords to various websites and,
  • Where I left my cup of coffee
So when somebody tells me that I need to get better at “forgetting” in order to get better at “remembering”, my first response is “huh?”

That’s part of the thesis of an article by Ingrid Wickelgren in the January/February edition of Scientific American Mind magazine.

The article, entitled “Trying to Forget”, quotes cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin J. Levy of Stanford University who said “Human memory is pretty good. The problem with our memories is not that nothing comes to mind – but that irrelevant stuff comes to mind.”

That does ring true for me.  If I try to remember where that cup of coffee is, somehow memories of where I’ve been in the house, what I need to do that day, and the fact that I need to buy more coffee get in the way of remember where the cup is.

The article goes on to state that “The act of forgetting crafts and hones data in the brain as if carving a statue from a block of marble. It enables us to make sense of the word by clearing a path to the thoughts that are truly valuable.”

The article states that a “patchwork of brain areas play roles in forgetting and remembering.” For those brain wonks out there, according to the article “in the prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral region governs memory suppression.”

Here’s the key takeaways from the article:
  • “We can will ourselves to forget; a neural circuit like the one that inhibits actions governs the ability to reject memories we neither want nor need”
  • “Emerging data provide support for Sigmund Freud’s controversial theory of repression, by which unwanted memories are shoved into the subconscious.”
  • “The inability to forget can impede emotional recovery in trauma victims.”
  • “If you practice at rebuffing recollections, you are likely to get better at it.”
While some of this sounds like pop psychology (or maybe “poop” psychology which was how I first typed this), I am interested in improving my memory, especially my working memory. Which means that I will continue to do my Lumosity exercises so I can find my, now lukewarm, cup of coffee.

Here’s a link to the article which, of course, wants you to sign up for a subscription: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=trying-to-forget
I didn’t and bought the hard copy which shows that I’m a troglodyte in addition to being, at the moment, caffeine-deprived.

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