Being Forgetful May Mean Your Brain Is Actually Working Properly

In your conversations, on television and while your surfing the web, it’s rare to hear about forgetfulness in an positive context. Usually, people attribute memory loss – long-term or short-term – to early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We’ve written many articles about memory loss and other warning signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia at The Hearty Soul. They shouldn’t be taken lightly either.

However, sometimes it can be exhausting reading articles about everything you need to fear or worry. In fact, a June 2017 study published in Neuron has this to say: being forgetful about some things could mean your brain is simply working properly, maybe even better than you thought.[1]

Study Finds Forgetfulness Could Really Be a Good Thing

According to a research team from the University of Toronto and SickKids Hospital, forgetfulness is not such a bad thing. Contrary to the belief that information is king, notes UofT Assistant Professor Blake Richards, “the point of memory is not being able to remember who won the Stanley Cup in 1972.”[2]

In Richards’ and co-author Paul Frankland’s study “The Persistence and Transience of Memory,” they sought to explore the significance of forgetting in relation to brain function and health. Given your knowledge of memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases, this can seem counterintuitive.

Ultimately, “the point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances… [An] important aspect in helping you do that is to be able to forget some information.”[2]

Now, the study itself did not involve any new experimental evidence. Rather, Richards and Frankland looked to past published research, analyzed the evidence available and concluded that being forgetful does have a practical use.

Why Does the Brain Spend So Much Energy Trying to Forget Information?

We all know how challenging and time-consuming memorizing information can be. So, hearing a study like this one can be frustrating and pointless if the brain is just going to forget what you spent so much time trying to remember.

However, Richards believes there are two good reasons why forgetting information you come across is helpful:[1,2]

  1. The world is constantly changing so old information becomes outdated and less important to remember. “If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories,” Richards said, “that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.”

  2. It’s necessary to be able to make generalizations when you’re faced with large amounts of data. To do this, your brain must forget some details or else you get caught up in too many opposing factors and can’t prioritize key information.

The more forgetful readers are probably breathing a sigh of relief.

But How is Harmless Forgetting Different from Pathological Memory Loss?

We all have our forgetful moments and while it can get frustrating, it’s not always serious. In fact, it’s a completely natural reality that occurs with age. Some examples of harmless forgetting can include:[3,4,5]

  • Having tip-of-the-tongue moments with word recall

  • Occasionally forgetting where you put your keys or left your glasses

  • Forgetting an appointment

  • Not being able to remember details from past conversations or television shows

In the case of worrisome forgetfulness, it tends to be more visible. More serious symptoms of pathological memory loss may include:[4,5,6]

  • Struggling to remember things daily

  • Regularly forgetting conversations, appointments, or events

  • Difficulty remember names or numbers

  • Finding it hard to follow conversations on screens (e.g., television programmes)

  • Losing track of what you’re saying mid-speech

  • Forgetting names of simple, everyday objects

  • Getting lost or disoriented in familiar places

Bottom Line

Many articles can seem like fearmongering, but you don’t need to jump to drastic assumptions just yet. If you forget things here and here – and you will – take a moment, collect yourself, and try to remember again with a clearer mind. (Your sunglasses are probably on your head.) The everyday grind can take its toll and make you think you’re crazier than you are.

If you do suspect a more serious neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s, however, make a checklist of the signs and symptoms above and make an appointment with your doctor right away.

[1] http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(17)30365-3

[2] https://www.utoronto.ca/news/why-forgetting-really-important-memory-u-t-research

[3] http://www.dementia.com/memory-loss.html

[4] https://www.unforgettable.org/blog/whats-the-difference-between-forgetfulness-memory-loss-and-dementia/

[5] https://www.alz.org/mnnd/documents/aging_memory_loss_and_dementia_what_is_the_difference.pdf

[6] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/age-related-memory-loss.htm

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