Let it go, move on, it’s all in the past.
When an unpleasant experience haunts us, we want nothing more than to forget. Yet it takes up space in our heads – a rude remark, an embarrassing slip of the tongue or a bad decision – replaying mercilessly like a broken record.
Mulling over negative events for a long time, also known as rumination, “can impair thinking and problem-solving” skills, says US-based psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema in American Psychological Association’s 2005 ‘Monitor on Psychology’ publication.
It’s not just the psychologists who are warning against clinging on to mental baggage: Neuroscience says forgetting is healthy for the brain, too.
There are so many events that occur in our lives… If you were to remember everything, every detail, you may not be able to make actual decisions.
“There are so many events that occur in our lives… If you were to remember everything, every detail, you may not be able to make actual decisions. In the noise of all this information, what’s important will be lost,” Dr Gene Ann Thomas, specialist neurologist at NMC Medical Centre, Al Nahda, Sharjah, told Gulf News.
Here is another reason for you to let go – so you can focus better on the present.
Forgetting the keys is normal
When the brain forgets and remembers in balance, it’s always a good sign. Neuroscientists have been calling this normal forgetting – think of all the times you lost your car in the parking lot, rushed back home to grab the keys or missed someone’s birthday.
“Say I’ve put my keys somewhere, and if I wasn’t paying attention at the time, then I won’t remember it,” said Dr Thomas. “A way to fix this would just to be mindful; to make sure that we’re present and available when memory formation is taking place.”
Considering the many tasks we juggle in a day, losing focus once in a while is a given and forgetting as a result completely normal. A distracted brain is just one of the many explanations for a lapse in memory. Experts are still trying to pinpoint why forgetting really happens and what causes it.
For instance, forgetting the way home after years of living in the same house is alarming. This type of forgetfulness would be then diagnosed as a form of dementia, if symptoms persist for more than six months. Dr Thomas adds that dementia is a chronic decline of cognitive functions, like thinking, speech, motor skills, vision and more, not just memory loss.
In less severe impairment cases, forgetting might be a symptom of treatable causes like depression and anxiety, electrolyte imbalance, an underactive thyroid gland, eating disorders like bulimia and vitamin B12 deficiency.
In January 2022, a new theory was proposed, one that assured us that it was not only normal but healthy for our brains to draw a blank. Published in the US-based Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal, the research paper says that we forget because the mind only accesses specific memories it considers important at a given time.
Then whatever is irrelevant to the current environment is removed, helping us perform better in and adapt to different settings.
Leaving out the unwanted
Before we dive further into what the study means for us, it would be helpful to know how a particularly good day, for instance, turns into a good memory. We’re able to recall the day we graduated or details from the day we got married because of a process called consolidation.
“It was an underdog moment for me,” said Shaikh Fahad, a 26-year-old Indian expat and content editor in Dubai, who doubles as a runner on the weekends. “In 2018 at the Dubai Creek Striders, I finished my first half marathon; I ran for 21km, but only had three weeks to prepare, which isn’t recommended. Covering the last 100 metres is really an experience everyone should go through. I was wearing my Adidas Cloudfoam... I had blisters once I finished the race. It was a bittersweet emotion.”
I was wearing my Adidas Cloudfoam... I had blisters once I finished the race. It was a bittersweet emotion.
Dr Thomas says the brain first stores the special experience in our working memory. Then the more we think back to the day, the more neural connections the brain forms, transforming it into a short-term memory.
Further stronger connections will eventually put the happy moment in our long-term memory drawer, which you can recall with clarity even years down the line. “When any memory is connected to some emotion, you will remember it better, like the day your sibling was born or the day you witnessed a traumatic accident,” she added.
“I flew out to Hong Kong to see my favourite band perform in 2019,” Neha Prasad, 27, Indian expat and online merchandiser in Dubai, tells Gulf News. “One of the things that really stood out to me, right before the encore, was the audience chanting together... it didn’t feel like you were alone. I remember the lights, the sounds, and the temperature – it was really cold then but everyone was screaming and dancing so you were warm. The year 2019 wasn’t so great career-wise, but this turned it over for me.”
What about the food we ate for dinner two days ago? Or the clothes we wore to work last week? It’s all fuzzy because “the brain doesn’t feel that these details are important enough to consolidate”, says Dr Thomas.
Similar day-to-day events, which are repetitive with little to no special information for the brain will eventually fade into the background.
The brain – more than a storage box
Imagine if you remembered or consolidated every single moment of your life – the minute details would hold you back from looking at the bigger picture.
Take driving for instance, says Dr Thomas. Learning how to drive a particular car then applying that experience to other cars would be near impossible because every other vehicle would feel as unfamiliar as the first.
“You need to suppress some things and remember others for the skill to become automatic,” she said. “Your brain is more than just for storing information – it will only remember the essence of the experience.”
Besides failing to generalise, there’s another caveat involved with not taking out our ‘mental’ junk. Recalling experiences, especially negative ones, in great detail can stump your decision-making ability. Forgetting is a lot like a filter for the brain, which it uses to sort out the needed and unneeded, so that you can arrive at your choice faster.
So remember, the memories that are haunting you are not relevant right now, especially not when you’re about to go to bed. Let the brain hit the delete button.