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Want to improve your memory? Oh, forget it

The better you can forget, the better you’ll be able to remember, scientists now say.

To remember facts that are important in your life today, you have to be able to let go of information that you no longer need, says Benjamin Storm, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

“For example, if someone asks you who is the current Speaker of the House, you might remember Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi,” explains Storm, co-author of a study on the subject published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. “That, of course, is incorrect. So you have to have a way of not thinking about Gingrich and Pelosi, so you can remember that the current Speaker is John Boehner.”

Your brain is stuffed full of information and for you to have important information at your fingertips -- or the tip of your tongue -- it has to forget facts that aren’t currently needed. It’s like your belongings: Important stuff you might store on your desk. Less important stuff you’ll toss up in the attic. You can get the stuff out of the attic if you really need it, but it’s harder to access.

To get a sense of how the brain forgets in order to remember, Storm set up some experiments. In one, volunteers were given a list of six words that were all related: a list of six fruits, for example. Then the volunteers were given a simple test in which the category was listed along with the first letter of three items followed by a blank to be filled in -- so you might see “fruits,” followed by an “o” for orange or an “a” for apple. Next the volunteers were given the same test, but this time with cuing letters for all six items.

The volunteers easily remembered the three items they’d originally been tested on. The other three were very hard to recall. Their memories of these items had been lost.

The experiment explains what happens when we get a new phone number, Storm says. Once you’ve learned the new number, it’s almost impossible to recall the old one. And that makes sense. Imagine how hard it would be if you remembered every single phone number you’d ever had.

As it turns out, some people are better forgetters than others, says Storm. And these people tend to be better at problem solving. Something about the way their brains organize information helps them to think, he explains. 

Are you better at remembering -- or forgetting?