We are obsessed with remembering. We keep to-do lists, make photo albums, and furiously record the details of our lives on Facebook and Instagram, all with the purpose of savoring every little memory for fear of letting one slip. This fear, while irrational, is understandable given our circumstances. The reality that five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease has made us hyper-aware of memory loss — and a steady stream of studies and articles are ready to appeal to our anxieties. They tell us that seemingly random things can fortify our memories: Eat more berries! Down that chocolate. Get more caffeine in your diet. Add cinnamon to everything! Exercise. Lift weights and run barefoot. Get hearing aids. Lose weight. Play video games.
But, alongside the studies telling us how to keep our memories intact, an enormous body of research has led to another conclusion: In many cases, it's okay (and in fact, beneficial) to forget. Human memory is not only unreliable, but often partially or wholly false. And certain kinds of forgetting is actually really good for us.
Most of us have utter confidence in the veracity of our memories. "I remember like it was yesterday!" we say. Memory is a flawless archive that, like a computer, records and stores every detail. When we call up a memory, we are positive it will appear intact, exactly as we left it.
Every time we retrieve a memory, the brain delivers a partial picture, one that's less like a computer document and more like a slice of Swiss cheese. Those cheesy holes get filled in with information that may or may not be true. Then, when we are finished with the new version of the memory, the brain consolidates and "repacks" it, losing some facts and keeping some of that sketchy filler that's part truth and part fabrication. The more times we retrieve and recount a memory, the less trustworthy it becomes.
This even happens with "flashbulb memories," those where-were-you-when type of memories surrounding traumatic events, such as 9/11 or the death of a famous person. These are the type of memories we tend to recount at regular intervals and then "repack." They are also the memories we believe we can remember almost photographically.
When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air in 1986, researchers asked students a series of questions 24 hours after the explosion and the same questions again two-and-a-half years later. Only seven percent of students showed near-perfect recall, and 68 percent reported a cobbled up mixture of accurate and inaccurate details. Strangest of all, and perhaps most disturbing, one in four students reported things that were entirely different than what they originally reported just 24 hours after the incident.
A similar study conducted after 9/11 found that 40 percent of the time, people misremembered parts of their own story.
This is particularly distressing when you consider that our judicial system relies heavily on eyewitness testimony, especially in murder cases, even though this ultra-high stakes gamble on human memory has proven to be, shall we say, dicey. The Innocence Project, dedicated to exonerating the falsely convicted, reports that among several hundred convictions overturned by DNA testing, eyewitness misidentification is the biggest contributor, accounting for a whopping 70 percent of wrongful convictions.
Aside from the fact that what you're remembering probably isn't all that accurate, there's the evidence that forgetting is actually a vital part of healthy brain function. As Eric Leuthardt writes at Psychology Today: "We forget not because we have an imperfect hippocampus (our brain's memory organ); it's actually an evolved solution. The ability to lose information allows new information to come in that is more relevant, more pertinent to an ongoing reality. Forgetting allows us to update."
In other words, forgetting is the brain's way of flushing out the irrelevant stuff so we can remember the important stuff. One recent study found that people who can let go of unnecessary information are better at things like problem solving. "Ironically, it appears that thinking and remembering rely at least in part on a process that underlies forgetting," the authors write.
Still not convinced? As Tania Lombrozo writes at NPR, "to appreciate the value of forgetting, consider what would happen if forgetting failed."
This is all too real for people who suffer from anxiety disorders, such as PTSD and phobias. For these people, reliving unwanted memories can cause a lifetime of suffering. Forgetting would provide immediate and welcome relief. Researchers are looking for ways to manipulate memory and facilitate memory loss to "erase" or redirect those memories.
Then there are people who have a rare condition called highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). They can remember minute details of their lives going all the way back to childhood. Give them a date, and they'll vividly recall where they were, what they were wearing, and what happened on that date.
One woman with HSAM says having a perfect memory is a huge burden. "I run my entire life through my head every day, and it drives me crazy!!!"
"The fact that many, perhaps most, memories are fleeting is adaptive," writes James McGaugh, a neurobiologist who studies learning and memory at UC Irvine. "There is usually no need for memory of every details of our daily experiences."
Perhaps key to overcoming our own anxieties about memory loss is knowing the signs of dementia and Alzheimer's. Misplacing your keys or forgetting a lunch date is normal memory loss, and does not have to be cause for alarm. These lapses happen to everyone. Understanding and accepting the adaptive aspect of normal memory can help us relax into daily hiccups.
Memory malfunction is just part of being human, and, in most cases, it's better to just forget about it. As psychologist Simon Nørby writes, "forgetting helps people to be happy."