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Why Forgetting Isn't Bad, for Your Brain

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Having trouble remembering some of your memories as time goes on?  New research reframes how we look at the process of forgetting and encourages us to take heart, as we actually may benefit from this process of forgetting.

                Recently published in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal, two prominent neuroscientists have adopted a hypothesis which views forgetting as an integral part of the learning process that is subject to change based on feedback from the environment.  Keeping large amounts of memories that are not readily applicable to our environment frees up space for the memories that do make a difference in the present moments.

                It isn’t just that forgetting memories is a way of focusing on what’s truly needed in any given scenario according to this new theory.  Memories are believed to be retained in special neuron groups called engram cells which become activated when memories are recalled.  In the new theory, the reason that memories become inaccessible is because these engram cells are blocked from activating and inhibit memory recall itself.  The memories are still stored; but can’t be brought to the front of the mind.

                In this way, forgetting is a type of learning in which the brain turns on and off certain memories to a frozen state.  This process is influenced by the present conditions of the environment and what the brain thinks it needs in real time as it learns how to respond to the environment.  Rather than a detriment to brain function or well-being, it may reveal a different side of the brain which shows how flexible cognitive processes can be in order to achieve the greatest outcome of a situation.

                The scientists hope that this new interpretation of forgetting allows for advancements when forgetfulness is mediated by disease or neurodegeneration.  In these disease states, the natural regulation of this process is disrupted, and significant groups of engram cells are needlessly blocked independent of the dynamic response to the environment. Instead of viewing memory loss as an abject loss of memory, the new theory proposes that it’s more about access to these memories than the complete loss of them. 


Tomás J. Ryan, Paul W. Frankland. Forgetting as a form of adaptive engram cell plasticity. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41583-021-00548-3


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