Blessed are the Forgetful


December 17, 2013

So much research and energy is spent on the topic of memory. We talk about our “memories” – those moments that stand out and define our lives. We talk about improving our “memory” so that we can pass exams and remember where we left our car keys. But is remembering always a good thing?

Is it Good to Forget?

Research shows that there are some benefits to forgetting – in fact, in order to learn new things, forgetting is required.  According to a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, you wouldn’t be able to learn anything new if you weren’t able to forget some things.

Researcher Ben Storm said in his research that memories, ”could completely overrun our life and make it impossible to learn and retrieve new things if they were left alone, and could just overpower the rest of memory.” Forgetting unnecessary things allows you to focus on what’s important right now – those things that are relevant.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, too many long-term memories make it harder to filter new information and deal with short-term memories. So, perhaps shoeboxes full of photos (or Instagram accounts full of digital pictures) is the best place for the past, so that the future can continue.

But What if You Couldn’t Forget? 

Fortunately, when it comes to the past,  most of us are able to whitewash much of it, picking and choosing what and how we remember it. We blissfully bock out some of the less attractive moments of our lives, the stupid decisions…the hurt…the worst of the loss.

But what would it be like if you were NOT able to forget anything? What if you were able to remember every single detail of your life? Every conversation, every thing you wore, or ate or did? Every harsh word, unkind action or poor decision? The fact that most of us are able to  blur our memories is a blessing at times. Too much recall would just be depressing.

Recently, I read about a group of people who cannot forget – even if they wanted to.  In 2010, 60 Minutes aired an episode that profiled six people who have Superior Autobiographical Memory. They have the rare ability to vividly remember every detail of their lives since they were young children. Most of the people interviewed found the ability to remember everything to be a curse. In fact, at least one person refused to appear on the show as her life of “remembering everything” was an incredible burden to her – she didn’t want to discuss it publicly.

But to Louise Owen, a professional violinist from New York City in her late 30’s, Superior Autobiographical Memory is a gift that has enhanced her life. When asked about her ability to have total recall about everything, she said that it has caused her to live her life with much greater intention, and as a result, more joy. The fact that she knows that she will remember exactly what happens each day causes her to make significantly better, wiser choices.

She is constantly aware that every choice she makes will not fade into the shadows of a benevolently flawed memory. She knows that whatever happens each day, she will not only have to live with it – she will have to remember it. That knowledge changes her and her decisions.

Not a bad reminder for all of us, as we close out 2013. Maybe it’s times to forget that which does not advance our future, and to live and act as if we will never forget the impact, choices and words of today.

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