The Surprising Reason We Forget Things (Plus 4 Secrets To Remembering)


Our brains sure work in interesting ways. (GIF: Tumblr/

Forgetting certain memories while remembering others may be a normal part of brain function, new research shows.

In short, the very act of remembering may cause people to forget other memories that are overridden in the retrieval process, according to the study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences unit in Cambridge, England, discovered that intentional memory recall isn’t as simple as mentally reawakening a memory. In fact, the act of remembering can actually trigger the brain to forget other competing experiences that interfere with memory retrieval.

“Though there has been an emerging belief within the academic field that the brain has this inhibitory mechanism, I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that recalling memories has this darker side of making us forget others by actually suppressing them,” study co-leader Maria Wimber, PhD, says in a statement.

While there are other studies on memory interference, researchers say this is the first to isolate the adaptive forgetting mechanism in the brain. It’s this mechanism by which remembering dynamically alters the aspects of our past that remain accessible.

Related: 5 Surprising Causes Of Memory Loss

Researchers used MRI scans to monitor patterns of brain activity in study participants while they were asked to recall certain memories based on images they had been shown earlier. Over the course of several retrievals, participants were asked to recall a specific memory, which became more vivid with each trial. The results showed that competing memories were retrieved with more difficulty with each trial carried out.

The findings are not limited to specific memory types — semantic memory, episodic memory, and recently acquired short-term memories are all impacted. In fact, though people differ genetically, researchers say that it is thought that all brains are capable of inducing varying degrees of this forgetting mechanism.

There is a bright side to the study. “[Forgetting] can be incredibly useful when trying to overcome a negative memory from our past. So there are opportunities for this to be applied in areas to really help people,” Wimber says.

Related: 8 Foods That Help Improve Your Memory

4 Memory Boosters

Minor memory slips can happen at any age. Try these four savvy tips to give your memory a boost and set yourself up for success.

  1. Stay active. Like any muscle, if you don’t use your brain, you lose it. Crossword puzzles, learning a language, and memory games are activities that help keep the brain in top shape. Regular aerobic exercise is also important. It boosts the size of the hippocampus, according to a 2014 University of British Columbia study. This is the area of the brain that involves memory and learning.

  2. Take a cue. Trouble remembering a name? Reinforce the person’s name by repeating the name as soon as you hear it and using word association.

  3. Get some Zzs. Sleep is important in helping your brain consolidate and form memories, and too little is linked to learning impairment as well as forgetfulness.

  4. Organization counts. It’s easier to remember deadlines or things you need to do when you’re organized. Write tasks and appointments down in an easy-to-remember place. Electronic calendars on your computer and cell phones are right at your fingertips. Sounding off into your cell phone for voice reminders work great, too. Don’t forget to set up automatic reminders and check off completed tasks.

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