Adaptive Forgetting

We have explored five different causes of forgetting. Together they can account for the day-to-day episodes of forgetting that each of us experience. Typically, we think of these episodes in a negative light and view forgetting as a memory failure. Is forgetting ever good? Most people would reason that forgetting that occurs in response to a deliberate attempt to keep an event out of mind is a good thing. No one wants to be constantly reminded of falling on their face in front of all of their friends. However, beyond that, it can be argued that forgetting is adaptive, allowing us to be efficient and hold onto only the most relevant memories (Bjork, 1989; Anderson & Milson, 1989). Shereshevsky, or “S,” the mnemonist studied by Alexander Luria (1968), was a man who almost never forgot. His memory appeared to be virtually limitless.

Could you imagine being unable to forget every path you have taken while hiking? Each new trip, you would be walking around the forest for days, incapable of distinguishing today’s path from the prior ones. [Image: Dan Trew,, CC BY-SA 2.0,]

He could memorize a table of 50 numbers in under 3 minutes and recall the numbers in rows, columns, or diagonals with ease. He could recall lists of words and passages that he had memorized over a decade before. Yet Shereshevsky found it difficult to function in his everyday life because he was constantly distracted by a flood of details and associations that sprung to mind. His case history suggests that remembering everything is not always a good thing. You may occasionally have trouble remembering where you parked your car, but imagine if every time you had to find your car, every single former parking space came to mind. The task would become impossibly difficult to sort through all of those irrelevant memories. Thus, forgetting is adaptive in that it makes us more efficient. The price of that efficiency is those moments when our memories seem to fail us (Schacter, 1999).


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Adaptive Forgetting by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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