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Surprising Science

What the Brain Chooses to Forget

Your brain has a smart filter that pushes out irrelevant data so we can be unburdened from remembering.

I feel lucky to live in an age where I can offload some of my memory to a phone — birthdays, special occasions, meetings, and so on require only a programmed reminder. But I easily fill up these spaces every day with information about the latest research, news releases, and happenings of the day — it seems like if my mind were a storage drive, I’d be close to reaching capacity at this point. Fortunately, our brains are quite adaptive, according to neuroscientists Fiona Kumfor and Sicong Tu in an article for The Conversation.

Kumfor and Tu write that our brains are able to adapt and take in new information — it simply pushes old, irrelevant data out. Forgetting old information may seem frightening, but Kumfor and Tu assure readers that it’s likely information that would have interfered with recall. The brain filters out information that would otherwise bog us down, memories related to things that we already know get pushed out.

“This is important” Kumfor and Tu write, “because similar information is more likely to interfere with existing knowledge, and it’s the stuff that crowds without being useful.”

Think about it this way, say you get a new PIN for your bank card. As you try to remember the new one, the old PIN begins to fade away. Imagine when you tried to type in your PIN, the old number came to mind with the new one. It’s for this reason that the brain’s filter, the prefrontal cortex, works with the long-term memory center, the hippocampus, in processing and retrieving specific, relevant information.

“This type of memory (where you are trying to remember new, but similar information) is particularly susceptible to interference.”

You might be wondering about the outliers — the people who can remember every day of their lives and never forget. Indeed, what happens when their memory-banks are filled with a detailed entry of every day? Kumfor and Tu write that it can be quite a burden. Those with hyperthymestic syndrome have difficulties thinking “about the present or the future, because of the feeling of constantly living in the past, caught in their memories. And this is what we all might experience if our brains didn’t have a mechanism for superseding information that’s no longer relevant and did indeed fill up.”

Dr. Antonio Damasio, a renowned neuroscientist who direct’s the USC Brain and Creativity Institute, explains that instead of recording every event in your life, the brain records conjunctions of the occurrence of certain events. Out of the conjunction, it can then replay and reconstruct.

To read more about the study, head over to The Conversation.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock


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