Adaptive Forgetfulness

As human beings we have a positive association with memory. We view those with good memories as intelligent and reinforce the idea that remembering mistakes of the past assures we won’t repeat them in the future. I don’t discount the value of memory on the whole.

However — is there an advantage to being forgetful?

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Being the biology geek that I am, I quickly took to Google to see if there were any studies on potential advantages of forgetfulness in animals and humans.

If you do this type of search yourself, you’ll quickly find that in humans most of the studies on memory and forgetfulness go back to Freud and the idea of repression. Freud conjectured that memory repression could be valuable in order for an individual to forget trauma and move forward, however, today we know that the aftereffects of repression can have lasting and far reaching negative impacts.

Repression wasn’t exactly the concept I was after, so I quickly took a look into the animal kingdom to see where memory and forgetfulness may be less emotionally driven and instead have its roots in some sort of evolutionary advantage.

That’s when I stumbled onto this: “Adaptive Forgetting in Animals,” a 12-page paper by Kraemer and Golding from the University of Kentucky who had the same sort of curiosity I did.

The whole paper is definitely worth a read if you’re into academic writing, but the main arguments they make are:

“(1) not all animal forgetting is based on a failed process, and (2) instances of forgetting that do not entail a failed process reflect an adaptive mechanism designed to enhance behavioral plasticity.”

In other words, forgetting is not always a defect and may allow animals to be more agile in navigating their environments, therefore relating an advantage.

Remembering past mistakes can be valuable in avoiding future ones, but can remembering past successes actually inhibit our ability to be successful in the future? Does memory of success convey a negative advantage?

Some of us are old enough to remember the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” Which basically set forth that mice in a maze can remember the path to cheese, and even once the cheese is removed, they will continue to go to the same spot repeatedly looking for it. The point of the book was to be conscious of the fact that the cheese may move and you’ll need to explore new areas to find it.

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But would it be even better, rather than having to continually resist the urge to travel that historic set of paths and turns, if you were able to forget that the cheese was ever there in the first place?

Before the mice knew where the cheese was, they had to find it. How did they do that? They explored, they used their sense of smell, sight, pattern recognition, trial and error. There was no process yet to blindly adhere to, no pattern rewarded day after day.

Repetition builds habits that are hard to break even after those habits and behaviors no longer confer an advantage and even when they now potentially provide a disadvantage.

Animals are by many standards not logical beings, so adaptive forgetfulness may be easier for them to achieve, especially as you consider simpler and simpler organisms.

As people, we have the wonderful gifts of complexity and rational thought, which means this type of “forgetfulness” may be nearly impossible without deliberate practice.

Things are different, the future may not look like the past — ever.

If we’re going to emerge stronger, maybe we need to make “Adaptive Forgetfulness” a new pillar of our businesses. Maybe we need to re-engage those senses and instincts that helped build our companies before the patterns were known and established to evolve necessarily and to thrive in the future.

“ …adaptive forgetting reflects an efficient and powerful strategy for dealing with conflicting information. Organisms often confront environmental changes that require incompatible behavior; a response that was once appropriate might become inappropriate as the situation changes.”

Reference: Adaptive Forgetting in Animals