Stop and consider the virtues of forgetfulness

We need a balance, of course, between remembering and forgetting. And we should hold each process responsible for our well-being.

By Robert N Kraft (The Shrink)

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Published: Thu 31 Jan 2019, 6:53 PM

Last updated: Thu 31 Jan 2019, 8:54 PM

Forgetting allows us to manage our complicated lives - encouraging us to remember what's important, inspiring us to experience the present more fully, and restoring us after painful events in our lives.
Some may object and say that forgetting is undesirable and often unsettling, but the benefits of forgetting are considerable - and necessary.
Do we really want to remember all the faces we see at the airport?
Do we want to remember our anxiety while waiting to board a plane or the obliviousness of the person behind us tapping a carry-on against our leg? Many of the relentless details of our daily lives are best forgotten.
When we walk into a room and forget the reason we came in, we may criticise our faulty memory. But the same process that leads to this brief inconvenience also leads to the forgetting of irrelevant thoughts - a process we need. We emphasise the noteworthy instances when forgetting betrayed us, but let us also consider the many times when we happily forgot, when it was beneficial for us not to remember.
Here are six different benefits of forgetting.
1) Practically speaking, it doesn't help to remember an old password we no longer use or a pin code we've replaced or a friend's unintentional insult. When we're in a new relationship, we're better off not remembering the intimacies of a former relationship.
2) Forgetting makes experiential learning possible. Such learning proceeds when specific memories of similar events coalesce into general knowledge. To gain general knowledge, we overlay information from similar events like superimposed imagery, misplacing particulars while becoming more knowledgeable about the type of event in general.
That's one reason we sometimes mix up what happened at particular times. Forgetting is not a breakdown of the memory system. It is a necessary function of learning.
3) Forgetting is required for accurate, selective remembering. Retrieval of one memory suppresses retrieval of other memories. Quick, precise recall results from forgetting what we don't want to retrieve. What people think of as good memory is actually the ability to forget the irrelevant. People who are better able to prune away irrelevant events are better able to remember pertinent events.
4) Forgetting allows us to concentrate. It prevents intrusive memory images from remaining too long in consciousness - those off-topic thoughts that distract us. (What will I make for dinner? When did I last get my teeth cleaned? What was that funny line from the movie last night?)
5) Forgetting encourages losing oneself in the activities of the moment. We appreciate the present more fully when we aren't remembering the past.
6) Forgetting gets us through the slings and arrows of everyday life.
The endurance and bracing vividness of painful memories lead many people to believe that unpleasant memories outnumber pleasant ones. In fact, we forget most of the everyday unpleasantness in our daily lives.
We forget the ordinary irritations, insults, small failures, misstatements, and rejections, and that allows us to live our lives more happily and productively.
Forgetting keeps us positive.
We do remember the more disturbing events in our lives, but even these go through a type of forgetting. After a painful break up, after the loss of a parent or a spouse, after going through a traumatising event, most of us find that time eventually eases the pain. However, it's not physical time that causes pain to diminish. Vivid, emotional details in memory become less accessible to conscious experience, and recall of the painful events diminishes in frequency and duration. In other words, we partially forget.
When images from an unpleasant event repeatedly return to consciousness, unbidden and unwanted, we can attribute that to the power of memory. Or we can think of the repeated pain as a failure of the forgetting system. A system that usually protects us from such pain.
We need a balance, of course, between remembering and forgetting. And we should hold each process responsible for our well-being.
We forget a lot, naturally. But much of this forgetting is necessary for healthy functioning in a blooming, buzzing, vibrant, complicated, and occasionally disturbing world.
-Psychology Today
Robert N Kraft is a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University

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