Sunday, November 18, 2018

Is It Good to Forget?

Forgetfulness is a blessing. So say two Swedish researchers, Hilde and Ylva Ostby. They want people to understand that momentary bouts of forgetfulness are normal. The human brain cannot function effectively if it remembers everything that has ever happened.

And yet, the psycho world has long since pretended that recalling forgotten traumas is therapeutic. In fact, Freud recommended in his first work that hysterics become hysterical because they have forgotten childhood sexual traumas. He argued that remembering them would heal the wounds. It did not work, but people do still believe it.

The Ostby sisters direct their arguments against those who imagine that the failure to remember a name, the failure to recall a specific detail years after the a sign of pending dementia. The Times of London reports:

When a name, face, appointment or memory escapes us, it causes embarrassment, frustration, even fear. Particularly in middle age and beyond, we worry that it’s the first sign of mental decline. But according to a new book, the good news is that these lapses are completely normal. In fact, they are often a sign that our brain is in perfect working order, says the clinical neuropsychologist Ylva Østby, who with her sister, the novelist Hilde Østby, has written Adventures in Memory — the Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting. It’s not just good to forget, it’s essential.

Modern life and mobile phones mean that we are exposed to a barrage of information throughout the day. Not only is it normal for our brain to discard most of it, it’s also desirable. If it didn’t, our system would be overloaded. “A lot of forgetting occurs very soon after an experience,” says Ylva. “This is a good thing, because we don’t need to hang on to all that information. The brain is tidying up and working functionally.”

The researchers suggest that it’s normal to forget the names of people we have just met. One suspects that it depends on how important the person is. If the person is a business associate or a neighbor, we are likely to recall the name.

You’re introduced to someone and a second later, you’ve forgotten their name. It’s mortifying, and makes you feel stupid, but it shouldn’t. Your brain has merely focused on the more vital aspects of this social interaction. “It’s so common,” Ylva says. “We meet someone for the first time and forget their name shortly afterwards. But we’re actually using our working memory, which only has space for a limited amount of information.”

Our working memory keeps hold of information for only a few seconds, or for as long as we keep thinking of it. “When we meet another person, we’re filling up our working memory with a lot of other information,” Ylva says. “How we might appear to them, what we’re going to say next, who this person is in terms of personality, which is more important than a name, which is a random label. That’s what the brain clings to.” She adds: “It should be OK to ask their name again. It shows you take an interest.”

Without having further knowledge, I would suggest that it’s more important to remember a person’s name than to have a sense of his personality. People are more impressed when you remember their name than when you recall that they have a bubbly personality. I would also add that we have less interest in knowing a personality than we do in knowing their character. Knowing whether they are trustworthy is more important than knowing whether they are gregarious.

As for improving our memory, the researchers suggest that we should worry less and sleep more.

To help this process, there are certain things to avoid. “Worrying is one of the enemies of memory. We fill up our working memory with stressful thoughts,” Ylva says. Poor sleep especially has a negative effect. “A lot of memory consolidation goes on while we sleep. Memories are being laid down, rearranged and put into the right place. Lack of sleep can cause memory problems; you might remember events from the day, but the memories are not properly consolidated.”

We are inclined to remember what matters… and that might mean traumatic experiences. It does make sense that we recall threats and dangers, the better to recognize the early warning signs. Note again, that the Freudian theory whereby we repress traumas by forgetting them seems to run directly counter to the new notion:

If it saddens you that much of early parenthood is a blur except for moments such as a terrifying visit to A&E, your memory is doing its job. “Your brain doesn’t care whether you remember your child’s first steps,” says Ylva. “That’s not the important stuff — it doesn’t always have the same priorities as we as nostalgic people. Its priority is to learn the socially important information about their childhood. Who they are, their likes and dislikes.”

We do not, they continue, remember the specifics of each day’s ride to work. We do generalize the experience and create in our minds something like a stereotypical trip. As noted in a previous post, the human mind does not engage in inefficiencies like judging each individual as a unique individual:

Mundane activities are merged by the brain to save storage space. We don’t remember every individual journey to work because that would be pointless, but we know what it’s typically like — thanks to cumulative memory.

The next point is vitally important. The mind is not geared to recall the past. It functions best when it plans for the future. This also suggests, to me at least, that we do well to recall past successes too. Remembering when things went right will help us to make plans that are more likely to succeed.

You will note that psycho professionals want us to recall bad past experiences and to become mired in our childhood, the better to explain today’s derelictions. They do not seem to realize that recalling only traumas produces depression, a sense that failure is inevitable:

Memory is not a commemorative faculty. Its essential role is to guide us and help us to plan. For this, it works with our imagination. Ylva says, “By using pieces of information from the past, we can construct vivid simulations of the future. This and this happened then, so we can expect similar.” It gives us a way of exploring the emotional outcome of decisions we make. “If I say that to him, how will he respond? How will I feel?”

Simulating future outcomes sounds like policy analysis. We use past experience to guide us toward better decisions about what we should or should not do in the future. This does require some imagination… imagining and evaluating the potential responses to this or that action. It is also true that we make use of our knowledge of the experiences of other people. We study history and we study other cases. We should not give the impression... however inadvertent... that we rely only on memories of our own experiences.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

It's good to know that I seem to be "normal". I guess I won't have to want to shoot up the town, now. Thanks, Stuart!