Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering
A renowned neurologist explains why our routine forgetting—of names, dates, even house keys—is not a brain failure but actually, when combined with memory, one of the mind’s most beneficial functions.
Who wouldn’t want a better memory? Dr. Scott Small has dedicated his career to understanding why memory forsakes us. As director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University, he focuses largely on patients who experience pathological forgetting, and it is in contrast to their suffering that normal forgetting, which we experience every day, appears in sharp relief.
Until recently, most everyone—memory scientists included—believed that forgetting served no purpose. But new research in psychology, neurobiology, medicine, and computer science tells a different story. Forgetting is not a failure of our minds. It’s not even a benign glitch. It is, in fact, good for us—and, alongside memory, it is a required function for our minds to work best.
Forgetting benefits our cognitive and creative abilities, emotional well-being, and even our personal and societal health. As frustrating as a typical lapse can be, it’s precisely what opens up our minds to making better decisions, experiencing joy and relationships, and flourishing artistically.
From studies of bonobos in the wild to visits with the iconic painter Jasper Johns and the renowned decision-making expert Daniel Kahneman, Small looks across disciplines to put new scientific findings into illuminating context while also revealing groundbreaking developments about Alzheimer’s disease. The next time you forget where you left your keys, remember that a little forgetting does a lot of good.