Occasionally forgetting where your keys or glasses are might not be a cause for concern just yet, and can even be a sign your brain is working perfectly well, according to a study published in science journal Neuron, Health.com reports.
Researchers from the University of Toronto proposed that the end game of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but rather to make the best of your decision making by holding onto vital information and letting go of irrelevant ones.
“It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world,” said Blake Richards, an associate fellow in the Learning in Machines and Brains program at UT.
The researchers came to this conclusion after looking at years of data on memory, memory loss, and brain activity in both humans and animals, reports Health.com, and in one study of mice, found that as new brain cells are formed in the hippocampus—a region of the brain associated with learning new things—those new connections “overwrite” old memories and make them harder to access, nearly like computer databases.
The study finds relevance in today’s everything-at-my-fingertips society of being wired to our devices: not having to memorize a person’s phone number because they’re on social media anyway, and having immediate access to a wealth of information easily found on search engines.
“Instead of storing this irrelevant information that our phones can store for us, our brains are freed up to store the memories that actually do matter for us,” he says.
Constantly swapping old information with new ones has evolutionary benefits, said researchers. For one, it allows us to adapt better to new situations by letting go of outdated or possibly misleading information.
“If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision,” Richards said.
Think of it like being at an important function like a job interview or a mixer with big bosses, and instead of remembering things about the company or those self-help tips to ace interviews, your brain keeps bringing up what happened in Season 3 of Friends.
While useful at trivia nights about Friends episodes, it isn’t exactly a fountain of wealth to make a decision on.
“The fact is that evolution shaped our memory not to win a trivia game, but to make intelligent decisions,” says Richards. “And when you look at what’s needed to make intelligent decisions, we would argue that it’s healthy to forget some things.”
Our brain also help us forget specifics about past events while still remembering the big picture, which the researchers think gives us the ability to generalize previous experiences and better apply them to current situations.
So can you safely rule out neurological disorder just yet?
Richards said you can stop being so paranoid about it, but to a certain extent.
“You don’t want to forget everything, and if you’re forgetting a lot more than normal that might be cause for concern,” he says.
“But if you’re someone who forgets the occasional detail, that’s probably a sign that your memory system is perfectly healthy and doing exactly what it should be doing.”
While this is positive news for people who tend to forget a person’s name as soon as they hear it, Richards recommends helping out your system every now and then through exercise.
“We know that exercise increases the number of neurons in the hippocampus,” he says.
But won’t that cause older information to be lost, as the study argues?
“Yes, but they’re exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions,” said Richard in the report.