The Importance of Forgetting

Posted on: December 5, 2018 by Thomas Hoberg

Few people would say that they just “love to forget”.

In social relationships “forgetting” seems as popular as being caught lying or with the hand in the cookie jar.

We can’t imagine “Forgetting Made Easy” seminars or a “Forgetting for Dummies” book to be immensely popular.

Actually we tend to think "total recall" or eidetic memory is a "genius" skill, perhaps because it seems so useful in a knowledge based society.

But some things have always puzzled me:

  1. Memory recall quality is much higher in children as anyone who has played the game of Pairs with his children will testify. Does that mean the child’s brain is better, because it’s “fresher” or is it a symptom of being less developed?
  2. Some individuals seem to have “acquired” total recall as the result of a head trauma. Now the well-placed hammer strike is almost legendary when it comes to repair a failed piece of machinery, but considered less effective with computers. A precision knock on the head has been deprecated as education support technique and was never expected to turn children into geniuses. So how can brain damage produce genius?
  3. One of the most popular discoveries of Psychology are techniques to extract memories from the subconscious which we believe “completely forgotten” e.g. via hypnosis, association, dreams etc.

So perhaps there is no real difference between “normal” people and those with eidetic memory when it comes to memorizing and the real difference is in what happens next: Most people forget and a few don’t.

And funnily for those who forget, the process seems reversible. So is forgetting perhaps less “decay” and more an activity with a purpose?

Since it’s already taken me far too long to learn a thing or two about IT, I feel reluctant to start a new career in neuro-science in search for an answer. Instead I just wonder:

Is there evolutionary value in forgetting?

There is some debate if evolution has a purpose, mostly religious. It doesn’t seem to favor waste, but idleness?

Life is generally about food gathering, digestion, growth and reproduction and some species require more other less coordination or even thinking, depending on their niche in the ecosystem. Sloths are famous for lowering energy consumption, humans and other primates favor brain over muscle, but between species and even within a group of individuals, it tends to favor those who can achieve their result with less energy expense.

Having a more efficient brain allows either being smarter for every banana or needing less bananas to get through life.

Most people have experienced that the energy consumption of their brain is not constant: Doing or thinking something for the first time seems to require more energy than routine things. Developing a routine is mostly about reducing the number of conscious choices for an activity. While the activity itself may not actually reduce the number of items (physical movements or even mental steps) after an initial (and most likely individual) optimum has been reached, the conscious “checkpoints” become fewer, typically constrained by something like an error rate and the compensation required for that.

Quite obviously our brain needs energy to retain memory, but storing, retrieval and “computation” or thinking quite a bit more. Limiting the energy expensive activities limits banana requirements and was the key to evolutionary success.

In these times of wide-spread sugar induced obesity it seems a bit hard to imagine, but during the vast majority of humanity’s evolutionary past, food supply was a major limitation and made brain efficiency a big priority together with peak intelligence capacity (I’m not excluding muscles, “good looks”, infection resilience etc., just simplifying a bit).

And that’s where the ability to forget shows its true value:

To an IT guy like me, forgetting seems to be similar to garbage collection, heap compaction, indexing, archiving etc. a “brain LRU” scheme that segregates and separates between information that is used routinely and thus stays in the conscious and other information which has decaying hit counters and thus becomes archived, compacted etc. It reduces the search space during transaction processing to relevant information and thus the computational expense.

It is important to note that this process requires energy by itself and its mere existence thus underlines its importance. It is also extremely critical in that it must strike a careful balance between being too eager ([Finding] Dory) or too lazy (procrastination?).This process seems to take place mostly during non-business hours (sleep) and there seem to be different stages, intervals etc. (REM, non-REM etc.)

There are pseudo random memory inventory audits (dreams), emergency plans (adrenaline), manual requests (association), or maintenance procedures (hypnosis) which can result in archives being restored, but generally the working set is reduced as much as possible for minimal TCO… unless something in FORGET is broken and results in TOTAL RECALL.

There must be organic limits as to what the brain can do or how much energy consumption it can sustain, there are individual differences and limits but within sane members of the same species I doubt they are in orders of magnitude.

“Thinking speed” is hard to measure and compare, but again given identical “process size”, “power supply & cooling” and “chemistry”, differences in orders of magnitude fail imagination in my brain.

So even if we imagine unlimited sugar supply to the brain underbody, a defective FORGET may result in stress, loss of efficiency and underperformance on human workloads.

In fact the inability to forget is very likely to cause problems similar to those pictured in the movie “The Invention of Lying” and result in society break-down.

But that is just the individual aspect, and while there is some discussion as to whether we forget in Nirvana or remember forever in heaven the externally observable behavior is a generalized lack of response or memory loss to society.

Oral tradition or culture transfers essential knowledge, but record keeping, writing, video, digitalization has significantly changed that: Information and knowledge keeps accumulating to sizes where it can no longer be transferred within the time most people are able to allot for it.

So is the phenomenon we call “Information Overload” simply an indication that Facebook and Goggle have forgotten to implement FORGET?

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About Thomas Hoberg
Technical Director R&D, Worldline and member of the Scientific Community
Thomas Hoberg has spent 35 years or his entire adult life in IT. Responsible for Technical Architecture inside Worldline R&D, the European leader in the payment and transactional services industry, he led the transformation of all Linux based production services in Frankfurt and became part of the global Technical Strategy Innovation and Governance leadership team. His passion for innovation and education has made him a founding member of the Worldline Innovation Network, a long-time member of the Atos Scientific Community, a frequent lecturer in Worldline Techforum and Explore conferences. His other hobbies are singing in world class classical concert choirs (active), swimming (active) and diving (awaiting budget).