Total recall sounds great, but some things should be forgotten

If an elephant never forgets, is that necessarily good?
Vin Crosbie, CC BY-ND

Some things are better left forgotten

I believe that forgetting is almost as critical as remembering.

I study the brain and examine how language, communication and hence memory are represented in the brain and the influence disorders such as stroke and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have on it. While human memory is dynamic and flexible, it’s also susceptible to distortions arising from aging and pathological processes.

But forgetting isn’t just a loss that comes with age. It’s a normal part of the memory process. We don’t need to remember a lot of what happens to us – what we made for dinner two years ago, where we left the car the last five times we parked in this lot. Those are examples of things that aren’t useful to remember anymore.

There’s also the question of memories that are actively hindering our lives. Research suggests, and my work with memory-related conditions corroborates, that some people have an inability to forget traumatic events. This characteristic is partially responsible for conditions including depression and PTSD.

When memories of terrible events don’t fade naturally, can we move on with our lives?

A patient diagnosed with PTSD-related depression in one of my studies wanted to suppress all memories of his combat experience. He lost two friends in a particular battle and has had difficulty getting past that experience. It appears that we cannot willfully eliminate memories.

He tells me that yes, he would like to recall where he put his car keys and would like to remember his children’s birthdays, but would rather eliminate the traumatic memories of his combat experience.

Developing technology for total recall may sound wonderful and time-saving for improving daily living. Never forget an appointment, never spend precious minutes looking for misplaced keys, perhaps never even need a calendar to remember important events. And, of course, an implantable brain chip would be a huge boon for those whose memories have been destroyed by disease or injury. But there’s a hitch to total recall that doesn’t allow us as individuals and as a society to forget.

Perfect memory engenders stasis – the legacy of any failures (personal or in others) won’t be allowed to fade and therefore we cannot move past them. Forgetting allows for new beginnings and for personal and societal healing and forgiveness. It is critical for a war veteran to advance past a traumatizing event from the battlefield, or a spouse with hurt feelings to be able to let go of that experience to repair a relationship. We all need to let some memories go; it’s part of the process that allows us to appreciate the proverbial forest of our existence while not getting too bogged down with the trees of our daily lives.

For better or worse, technology for not ever forgetting may be here sometime soon. Whatever form this imagined external memory enhancement takes, it will be interesting to see how a new way of remembering changes us in return.

Perhaps some of us may have to add one more thing to our list – remember to forget.

The Conversation

Jyutika Mehta, Associate Professor of Communication Science and Disorders, Texas Woman’s University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Featured Photo Credit: Rob and Stephanie Levy via flickr, CC BY 2.0