Don’t panic about forgetting things! Memory loss can be GOOD for our brains, study says

You shouldn’t stress so much over forgetting the name of your fourth grade teacher, or the square root of 144, new research suggests. 

Failing to remember may actually improve memory and your ability to learn in the long-run, according to a study published on Wednesday.  

While forgetfulness – of certain kinds of information – is associated with aging, memory loss and dementia, the process may strengthen the associations that encode information into the brain. 

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the different ways that information gets stored in and retrieved from the brain. 

They found that the changes to context that interfere with our ability to recall could be repurposed to better solidify memories. 

Forgetting information may actually strengthen our memories by helping us make more new connections to a thought from the past, new research suggests 

So much relies on our memories: our personalities and sense of self, the ability to follow instructions, relationships, how to get home and what things in our worlds are dangerous or safe. 

Its importance makes the memory’s failings particularly frustrating. 

But the new research suggests that we should cut our forgetfulness a break. 

Dr Robert Bjork, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies how we learn and remember with the aim of improving the way we teach. 

The brain actually forms many distinct types of memories, including working, declarative and procedural memories, among others. 

These are loosely sorted into ‘long’ and ‘short’ term memory, but any information goes through four stages of memorization. 

First the information gets encoded. In this stage, we absorb information as an image, sound or a meaning. 

Next the brain determines where its new material should be stored: in a long or short term area of thememory. 

If what we’ve just learned is going to be immediately useful, the brain slates it for short-term memory, where information can stay for about 30 seconds for most adults. 

In order for these bits of experience to make their way to long-term memory, they have to be ‘attended to,’ or paid attention to.  

Essentially, as we pay attention to a memory, we form more synaptic connections related to it, forming a network that holds it in place. 

The stronger that network is, the more solid the memory will be. 

Dr Bjork calls this ‘strong storage strength.’ But, counterintuitively, forgetting does not break the network encoding that memory or weaken that storage strength.   

Forgetting is simply ‘a decrease in how readily accessible some information or procedure is at a given point in time,’ Dr Bjork explains.  

One of the reasons we forget things is that the context surrounding the information has changed in some way. 

An example is the passing of time. In the new study, presented today at the American Physiological Society, Dr Bjork points to a phone number memorized in childhood. 

It has likely been used countless times, making the imprint of the memory strong. But by adulthood, a lot of time has probably passed since that information was accessed. This protracted contextual change means the memory has ‘weak retrieval strength,’ says Dr Bjork. 

On the flip side, after we get over the frustrating hurdle of rooting around our minds for that information, the memory then gains a new set of contexts attached to it, further strengthening the way it is encoded in the brain.

This means that in learning and memory exercises, finding an optimal amount of time to allow to pass or changing other circumstances before asking a student to recall information could actually help them learn and strengthen memory function.