Misplace your keys? Don’t worry, forgetting is actually good for your brain

If you’re one of those people who misplaces their keys and phone regularly, don’t be alarmed. It’s not a sign that your memory is going. According to Dr. Megan Sumeracki and Dr. Althea Need Kaminske, a degree of forgetfulness is perfectly normal and even necessary for our brains to function properly.

In their new book, “The Psychology of Memory,” Drs. Sumeracki and Kaminske explain that memory is far more complex than most people realize. Rather than working like a recording device, our memory is more like a “brainWiki page,” where details can be edited and updated over time. This allows our brains to store more general information and adapt to new situations.

One of the key takeaways from their research is that extreme forms of memory, such as photographic or savant abilities, are very rare despite their frequent portrayal in movies and television. Instead, the authors focus on simple techniques that anyone can use to boost their memory and improve their learning.

The science of forgetting

Forgetting is a natural part of the memory process, and it serves an important purpose.

“Because we are most aware of our memory when we have trouble remembering something, our intuitions about how memory works might be a little biased,” says Dr. Kaminske, a cognitive psychologist and associate professor of clinical surgery at Indiana University, in a media release.

“For example, I (Althea) spend an embarrassing amount of time looking for my phone, water bottle, and keys. You may be unsurprised to learn that our memory systems are not necessarily designed to remember where we put our phones. Or keys. Or water bottles.”

However, the authors note that if we were in a survival scenario where dehydration was a concern, we would likely be much more aware of water sources. This is because our brains are wired to prioritize information that is relevant to our survival and well-being.

“People are better at remembering information when they process it in a fitness-relevant scenario, such as being stranded in the grasslands of a foreign land,” explains Dr. Kaminske.

Man woman brain
Forgetting is actually a natural part of the memory process, researchers say, and it serves an important purpose for the brain. (© denisismagilov – stock.adobe.com)

So, what can we do to improve our memory and make learning more efficient? Sumeracki and Kaminske offer several research-based strategies that anyone can use.

One technique is called “retrieval practice,” which involves actively pulling information from your memory rather than just passively reviewing it. For example, if you’re trying to remember a new colleague’s name, you might make a point of addressing them by name every time you see them.

Another strategy is to use schema, or mental frameworks, to organize new information in your brain. This is a technique that chess players use to remember the location of pieces on the board, but it can be applied to any complex information. By creating a mental structure for the information, you can reduce the demands on your working memory and make it easier to recall later.

Visual and auditory techniques can also be helpful for training your memory. For example, creating mental associations for each card in a deck can help you remember the order of the cards. While becoming a chess champion may not be easy, anyone can use schema to store and recall complex information.

Of course, no matter what strategies you use, regular practice is essential for improving your memory and learning new skills. However, the authors distinguish between regular practice and deliberate practice.

“Anyone who has studied knows that regular practice is essential,” the researchers write in their book. “But to become an expert in a field of learning, people need to employ deliberate practice. The difference is that deliberate practice involves purposeful and deliberate attention whereas regular practice just involves repetition.”

Person looking at old photos and memories
Using visual and auditory techniques, you can create mental associations in an album of pictures that can help you remember the order of the events. (© conceptualmotion – stock.adobe.com)

Throughout the book, Sumeracki and Kaminske emphasize the huge impact that memory has on our daily lives. From remembering to pick up groceries on the way home from work to recalling important details during a job interview, our memory is constantly being tested.

The authors also note that memory can be impaired by factors such as alcohol, sleep deprivation, and caffeine. By understanding how these factors affect our memory, we can take steps to optimize our brain function and improve our overall well-being.

Perhaps most importantly, the book calls for a greater understanding of how memory really works, particularly in legal settings. As the authors point out, victims of crime may not be believed in court because their memories are patchy, even though this is perfectly normal.

By educating potential jurors about the science of memory, we can help ensure that justice is served and that victims are treated with the respect and understanding they deserve.

“Visual and auditory techniques can also help train the memory of normal individuals. The ability to recall the order of cards in a pack seems impressive but can be achieved by creating mental associations for each card,” Drs. Sumeracki and Kaminske conclude.

“Anyone who has studied knows that regular practice is essential. But to become an expert in a field of learning, people need to employ deliberate practice. The difference is that deliberate practice involves purposeful and deliberate attention whereas regular practice just involves repetition.”

StudyFinds’ Matt Higgins contributed to this report.

Follow on Google News

About the Author

StudyFinds Staff

StudyFinds sets out to find new research that speaks to mass audiences — without all the scientific jargon. The stories we publish are digestible, summarized versions of research that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. These articles are AI assisted, but always reviewed and edited by a Study Finds staff member.

The contents of this website do not constitute advice and are provided for informational purposes only. See our full disclaimer