How Do I Improve My Memory? Forget More!

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Do you know what is essential for a good memory? The ability to forget. To completely and thoroughly forget. Forgetting, like breathing or sleeping, is physiologically normal. This is at odds with our modern compulsion to record and remember everything and is a perfect recipe for anxiety.

Deb Roy, a cognitive science professor at MIT studying language, recorded 8-10 hours daily of the first three years of his son's home life. He compiled a quarter million hours of audio and video, creating a 200,000 gigabyte "ultimate memory machine." Consider how much information each of us is exposed to in 24 hours, on streets, subways, screens and in sleep. Imagine recording and remembering all this. Thankfully, we were never meant to.

Fact: We are evolutionarily programmed to forget. Our brains evolved over millennia with built-in forgetfulness. Our brain is engineered to remember tastes, smells, voices, touch and visions, not names. Our brain is engineered to solve problems (How do we keep track of cattle? Mathematics; How do I communicate? Language), not remember disjointed facts. A fact not linked to a sense, an emotion, or a concept is quickly forgotten.

Upset that you didn't capture a moment forever, a missed smile, an exuberant wag? A handful of people are human versions of Roy's memory machine. Jill Price, an administrative worker in California, remembers every detail of every waking moment of her life from age 14, a running video stream. But such amazing autobiographical memory comes at a price. Remember the many cringe worthy moments of your life? Jill is forced to endure them in real time.

She states, "I run my life through my head constantly and it is very exhausting... like a split screen... intrusive... stuff that has tormented me through the years... the decisions... always going back to it and remembering the exact moment when I did this... then this wouldn't have happened... put(ting) me in dire straits... that's why I reached out to the doctors... "

Although Jill doesn't ever forget a face or a name and flourishes at her job, she still, like many of us, needs to take notes and use post-its and confesses to finding school "difficult."

Forgetting allows us to mold old memories, to learn, to forgive, to get on with life. Forgetting prunes our neural networks, allowing some to flourish and others to wither, improving efficiency. - Gayatri Devi, M.D.

Why don't we replay happy memories as often? Fire burns, sharp edges cut, snakes bite, heights are dangerous, bitter means poison. Perhaps memories of sorry events gave your ancestors the evolutionary edge in survival so that you can read (and forget :-)) this post.

But what is the harm in the extraordinary retention of facts?

Solomon Shereshevsky was a mnemonist, someone who so excelled in remembering that he parlayed his skill into a profession. He astounded thousands in early twentieth century Russia, accurately memorizing random audience facts. He remembered their names and details like place of origin of everyone in vast halls, in reverse or random order, even from decades-old shows. Eventually, facts from earlier performances began intruding, posing problems. He decided to forget this data but couldn't. You see, Solomon had forgotten how to forget.

Frustrated, he imagined writing the unwanted facts on paper and setting it ablaze. However, Solomon's vivid powers of visualization, which served him so well in remembering, now foiled his forgetting. He saw names glowing in the embers through the burnt paper! Solomon eventually solved his dilemma by scribbling and erasing information he wished to forget on a mental blackboard. In this way, he was able to actively, consciously forget.

You may conclude Solomon was entertaining and successful, given his recall of entire books and even foreign language poems. On the contrary. Dr. Aleksandr Luria, who studied him for three decades, found Solomon boring and noted his aimless drifting from job to job. It is not a fantastic memory of facts that begets success, but the ability to fold facts using good memory into fantastic ideas.

My definition of a good memory is the ability to remember enough relevant facts (Who is Darwin? What is espresso?), episodes (When and where did you vacation?), and procedures (How do I walk? Drive?) so that I appropriately adapt to experiences, advancing my individual and communal goals.

A good memory is not the extraordinary memory of Solomon and Jill, the holy grail that we often aspire to and fail to achieve. To remember everything is a Sisyphean task, physiologically impossible and misery-inducing. To remember everything is abnormal.

If you cannot forget an old love, how do you fall in love again? Forgetting allows us to mold old memories, to learn, to forgive, to get on with life. Forgetting prunes our neural networks, allowing some to flourish and others to wither, improving efficiency. Rapid, automatic forgetting of all but a minute amount of the terabytes of data we are inundated with every day is a good thing. If your forgetfulness interferes with your function, seek medical help. If not, stop fretting. Relax and enjoy your memory. For everything else, there's always Google!

Devi, Gayatri. A Calm Brain: Unlocking your natural relaxation system. New York: Dutton Adult, 2012.
Devi, Gayatri and Mitchell, Debra. What your doctor may not tell you about Alzheimer's disease. New York: Time Warner Books, 2004.
Luria, Aleksandr. The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory. New York: Basic Books Inc, 1968.
Price, Jill and Devi, Gayatri. Try to Forget. WNYC: The Brian Lehrer Show, 2008.
Price, Jill. The Woman Who Can't Forget. Free Press, 2008.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that most computers store about 1 GB of memory.

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