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Forgetting makes us smarter. Use these tricks to remember what you need to

It's not only normal, but necessary, for our brain to forget material that is no longer relevant.
Image: A computer screen covered with notes
As your brain works to keep an up to date reserve of memory data, it dumps the stuff that is deemed unnecessary. Enter: Post-it Notes.Peter Cade / Getty Images

We’ve all been there: You head into a room with purpose only to find yourself standing aimlessly, scratching your head, unable to remember why you entered in the first place.

Forgetfulness (when not linked to a serious illness) is typically associated with being rather thoughtless, lazy or even a bit lacking in intelligence. But as a new review of research from the University of Toronto details, the act of forgetting — a complex process in the brain — is integral in enabling us to collect new information and ultimately make smarter decisions.

We consulted experts to learn more about how this phenomenon works, as well as learned ways to help your brain hang on to memories that may be accidentally deemed disposable (hey, no brain is perfect).

The Hippocampus Is Working to Form Memories — and to Erase Them

“The brain seems to be investing resources and energy in inducing forgetting to enable you to [dispose] of information that is no longer relevant to you,” the review’s co-author Blake Richards, assistant professor at the University of Tornoto, tells NBC News BETTER, noting that the hippocampus, a part of our brain that stores memories, is one of the only cerebral regions that generates new cells after birth.

“For a long time it was assumed that that if the brain was bothering to spend this extra energy to add more cells (possibly throughout the course of our lives), that it was so we could remember more things,” noted Richards, adding that years of research shows it’s quite the reverse: New cells aren’t being created to give you more mnemonic storage, they’re born so the brain keeps an up to date, relevant reserve of memory data, so to speak, which means dumping the stuff that is deemed unnecessary. This process presumably helps in preventing you from recalling the wrong piece of information when racking your memory.

“The way these neural networks work, the memories do not get stored in different locations as they would on a computer,” explains Richards, suggesting that a virtually endless stockpile of memories in one proverbial memory bucket could slow us down or confuse us when we’re recalling something specific. “An arguably better strategy is to forget previous material that is no longer relevant.”

A Healthy Brain May Misidentify Something You Want To Remember As Irrelevant

The problem? Our brains can misidentify facts we actually want to remember as information that is no longer of use to us and rid of them. Let’s say you made a so-called mental note to remember to attend a last-minute meeting, or swing by the supermarket on your way home from work, and you flat out forgot. It’s certainly annoying, but only because you noticed it, which Richards stresses is an important point.

“It is frustrating when we forget something relevant to us, but often we don't notice the process of forgetting,” he says. “If we remembered everything [as very few people do], it would probably make us less capable in our everyday functionality, but yes, it is annoying when the brain [deletes] information we deem relevant.”

Tricks to help your brain remember

  • Make multiple associations: So how can we prevent this cerebral faux pas? Firstly, it’s important to note that if you’re frequently forgetting things, or if you’re forgetting information that is super relevant and/or recent (like where you live, or that you had a certain conversation this morning), you need to get checked out by a doctor. For those more trivial episodes of forgetting, the trick is to prevent them by building up relevancy in your brain around the stuff you want to remember.

One key to boosting memory is associating the needed information with other areas of your life.

“If we're given a piece of information to remember like a list of numbers or an address, and it's sitting out there without any connection to other parts of our lives, it may be easily forgotten,” says Dr. Daniel Franc, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, adding that one key to boosting memory is associating the needed information with other areas of your life. “[It’s about linking] different categories of knowledge. So, taking numbers and associating them with colors, for instance. We understand from basic biology that these different categories come together to cement memory into long-term storage. Without other associations, we’re more likely to forget.”

  • Envision what forgetting would look like — down to the sounds, smells and colors: I presented Dr. Franc with something I’m always forgetting: to set my alarm when I’m cooking. He recommended the following: “Take two to three seconds and envision the scenario of what could happen if you don’t set your alarm. See [in your mind] that the pot roast is now on fire. Think of the smell of the burnt dish. Give yourself a vivid set of cues both visual and olfactory. By making it a full experience and not just looking at the clock and saying, ‘I have to remember this’, you’ll be likely to remember it.” “Masters of memory do these things,” adds Franc. “When they’re given 15 numbers to remember they may create a visual representation of going into a house with different rooms and associate each number with a different room, a different color or a different sound. If you're thinking about other domains of sensory input, you may be able to get to that level.”
  • Tell yourself a story: Though clarifying that he is not an expert in the psychology of human memory, Richards finds that forming a story that arcs over multiple pieces of relevant data can help boost memory. “I tell my students that it is very important when studying to actually try to form overall stories of the material that connects everything in the course together,” he says. “Remembering every little bit in isolation is unlikely, but if something is emotional or surprising, your brain identifies it as more relevant.”
  • Improve your sleep hygiene: Having good sleep health has countless benefits, including for memory functionality. “Long-term memory connections occur during deep sleep,” says Franc. “Anything that disrupts that sleep can affect memory function. I have had patients come in with a complaint of memory loss and we fix their sleep disorder and their memory improves dramatically.”
  • Embrace technology: Many of us (myself included) may become worried that they’re relying too much on technology to remember things. It’s a fair concern, as we don’t want to become lazy, nor do we want to be stuck in a pickle should we lose our phone — and all of our important notes and numbers with it. What does neuroscience think of this? According to Franc, there are better things to worry about, and we should embrace the external memory storage that technology provides. “We no longer need phone books and lists of telephone numbers,” says Dr. Franc approvingly. “I think we can let technology help us use that opportunity to learn new and more important things — and to use our brains for more creative endeavors.” Moreover, this process in our brains could be helping us to live in the moment a bit more, and assessing new ways to become more flexible and adaptable to different situations. After all, while we may not be remembering every little thing about days past, we’re also letting go of quite a lot that won’t help us out in the days ahead.

What else is going on in your brain?

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