LifestyleNew theory proposes ‘forgetting’ is a form of learning

New theory proposes ‘forgetting’ is a form of learning


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We create countless memories as we live our lives but many of these we forget. Why?

Counter to the general assumption that memories simply decay with time, ‘forgetting’ might not be a bad thing – that is according to scientists who believe it may represent a form of learning.

The scientists behind the new theory – outlined today in leading international journal Nature Reviews Neurosciencesuggest that changes in our ability to access specific memories are based on environmental feedback and predictability. Rather than being a bug, forgetting may be a functional feature of the brain, allowing it to interact dynamically with the environment.

In a changing world like the one we and many other organisms live in, forgetting some memories can be beneficial as this can lead to more flexible behaviour and better decision-making. If memories were gained in circumstances that are not wholly relevant to the current environment, forgetting them can be a positive change that improves our wellbeing.

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So, in effect, the scientists believe we learn to forget some memories while retaining others that are important.

Forgetting of course comes at the cost of lost information, but a growing body of research indicates that, at least in some cases, forgetting is due to altered memory access rather than memory loss.

The new theory proposes that forgetting is due to circuit remodelling that switches engram cells from an accessible to an inaccessible state. Graphic credit: Dr Nora Raschle.

The new theory has been proposed by Dr Tomás Ryan, Associate Professor in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology and the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Paul Frankland, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

Both Dr Ryan and Dr Frankland are fellows of the Canadian global research organization CIFAR, which enabled this collaboration through its Child & Brain Development program, which is pursuing interdisciplinary work in this area.

Dr Ryan, whose research team is based in the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI), said:

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“Memories are stored in ensembles of neurons called ‘engram cells’ and successful recall of these memories involves the reactivation of these ensembles. The logical extension of this is that forgetting occurs when engram cells cannot be reactivated. The memories themselves are still there, but if the specific ensembles cannot be activated they can’t be recalled. It’s as if the memories are stored in a safe but you can’t remember the code to unlock it.

“Our new theory proposes that forgetting is due to circuit remodelling that switches engram cells from an accessible to an inaccessible state. Because the rate of forgetting is impacted by environmental conditions, we propose that forgetting is actually a form of learning that alters memory accessibility in line with the environment and how predictable it is.”

Dr Frankland added: 

“There are multiple ways in which our brains forget, but all of them act to make the engram – the physical embodiment of a memory – harder to access.”  

Speaking to the case of pathological forgetting in disease, Dr Ryan and Dr Frankland note:

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“Importantly, we believe that this ‘natural forgetting’ is reversible in certain circumstances, and that in disease states – such as in people living with Alzheimer’s disease for example – these natural forgetting mechanisms are hijacked, which results in greatly reduced engram cell accessibility and pathological memory loss.”

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  1. My own experience: I play guitar, I like to think I play very well and lots of people have praised my playing. I do it in bursts, spending lots of time playing and practicing and recording for a stretch of some months then I… don’t play at all.

    Life makes that cadence happen as much as anything, but all of my significant strides forward in technique and creative breakthrough have come shortly after breaking long dry spells. And that’s not to say there haven’t been disappointing breaks where everything feels cumbersome or fruitless. But all of my noticeable improvements playing have come after a significant stretch of time not playing, even if they were followed by significant time practicing.

  2. I wonder if this is related to the effect of being better at something after not doing it for a while.

    When it comes to a lot of things I do repetitively, I notice that there comes a point where either my skill doesn't improve or I actually get worse at what I'm doing. Then I'll take a day or more off, and when I come back suddenly I'm a total boss. The brain probably needs rest time to throw out the bad input and that can't happen as much during execution.

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