“The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.” — Friedrich Nietszche
There is an advantage to having a bad memory as Friedrich Nietszche noted in his work “Human, All Too Human”. You can enjoy again and again the same good things for the first time!
And he has a point. While superhuman memory is often a wished for superpower, remembering everything is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges explored this ability in his fantasy short-story “Funes the Memorious”.
Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the tale, has an accident which somehow turns on his power of memory. The young man can now remember every tiny detail of everything that has ever happened to him. Despite being able to do amazing feats, his day to day life turns into a nightmare. Always going over the events of the past in his mind, Funes suffers from a chronic lack of sleep. This state of mind eventually kills him.
Whereas Borges’ Funes was a fictional character, there really was a man with similar powers. In the first part of the 20th century, famed Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria came across the case of a journalist who had the uncanny ability of remembering almost everything that happened in his life. To the minutest of details, Solomon Shereshevsky could remember things many years after they had passed.
While these talents allowed Solomon to make a living, they also haunted him. In desperate attempts to forget, he turned to very unconventional means. In one failed try to unburden his soul, Shereshevsky wrote down his most hurtful memories on paper, and then burned them. Unfortunately, seeing the ashes go up in flames didn’t help. He realized that not even fire can destroy the past for him.
The Curse of Not Forgetting
In 2008, ABC News ran a very special segment of its iconic news program “20/20”. Spooky music playing in the background, the narrator set the scene with a slow careful exposition.
“Final episode of MASH?” Diane Sawyer, perfect hair and make-up, asks the woman sitting across from her.
“February 28th 1983,” responds the other woman. “And I could tell you what I was doing that day. It was raining that day too.”
This type of questioning continues for a little while longer. For the interviewee is Jill Price, who has an uncanny ability to remember all kinds of random things and events from her life. She suffers from hyperthymesia, a rare condition in which the person is able to retain a large number of their life experiences with vivid detail.
In a moment the interview turns darker. In a short clip, her brother Mike says: “There were things that I was like: Why doesn’t she get over them? She doesn’t.”
People say time cures all wounds, but not for Jill. At times, her life is a nightmare. She keeps reliving the negative things that happened in the past over and over again. She can’t forget.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) is a mental disorder that develops after a person experiences something traumatic. Someone like Jill suffers from PTSD on steroids. They are destined to live their entire life with never-ceasing thoughts of distress, constantly going over the past in their mind.
Your Happiness Often Comes from Things You Choose to Forget
Further into the interview, the narrator asks a poignant question that points at the very nature of happiness:
“Is it possible our happiness and survival come from what we choose to edit, to forget?”
Diane Sawyer goes on to explain a very important lesson on the self: “We have no idea how much of our self is created by editing our memories, to shape ourselves.”
In a way, this discussion echoes the ancient Buddhist wisdom of no self. What you consider as the “self” is everchanging, creating a new you at every point of time. The way your brain’s memory works further enhances the process.
Most people believe that memories get stored in some far off corner of the mind. When you recall them, you then get a perfect image of what happened. That’s not actually how things work. In fact, the act of recalling a memory changes it.
That’s why eyewitness descriptions of events are often so unreliable. Your mind is constantly updating and putting into new context the old memories it stores. The pain you feel when thinking about past events is not always the same pain you might have felt when those things were happening.
This is something that hit me extremely hard during the current lockdowns. Being alone with my thoughts, I often come back to thinking about incidents long gone. While at the time they might not have been anything important, for some reason they keep on reappearing. The people involved have probably forgotten them ages ago, but my mind keeps on dwelling.
I get a heightened sense of shame or other negative feelings, most of which are much stronger or even totally different from the way I felt back then. Go figure. The pain I feel about the past is larger than it should be. My mind keeps blowing up things which ultimately don’t matter. This constant blinking light in my head puts a serious cramp on my happiness.
Whereas science still doesn’t fully understand how the brain works, the notion that memory is the key to your well-being is not pulled out of thin air. Some recent research actually argues that forgetfulness is essential for a good life.
According to researchers Blake Richards and Paul Frankland, that’s because the main goal of memory is not preserving knowledge through time. Instead, your brain strives for the optimization of decision-making. So sometimes in order to function better as an individual you need to forget stuff.
How to Forget
One thing about memory I have discovered on my own is that context is king. I might be reading a book and a random thought pops into my head. When I turn the page, it immediately disappears.
However, there is an easy way to recover it. I just go back to the page I was reading and think of the context the thought appeared it. Usually in that instant I start to remember. For memory works as a series of connections. Memories fire together when they wire together.
That’s why certain triggers can cause memories to come bouncing back. Given our negativity bias, often these memories are bad flashbacks. They keep popping up when you least want them, causing enormous mental anguish.
One way to rectify that is by removing or changing the context of the memory. If it’s a negative event, try spinning it. Recall it in a humorous context. When you keep on doing that, the neurons in your brain which store the memory will form synapses to neurons tracking more positive circumstances.
Scientists have shown there are two main mechanisms you can use to intentionally forget unwanted memories. One is the redirection of your thoughts towards a different way of looking at the event. This reuses the brain’s recall mechanism to modify the way you view things and substituting one memory with another one.
The other mechanism is active suppression. This is a process that is only now beginning to be studied. However, be careful when trying it out. What happens is still not fully understood, but newer studies have discovered that the act of actively suppressing negative memories can sometimes erase other memories as well.
Dr. Michael Anderson, one of the researchers working in this field, compares the two techniques to driving a car.
“If we compare the brain to a car, it’s the difference between slamming on the mental brakes, versus controlling the steering of remembering towards another memory to avoid the unwanted memory. Despite operating in opposite ways, both mechanisms astonishingly led to the same pattern of forgetting the suppressed memories. The only way one could tell that something different was going on was by looking at what the brain was doing.”
Things to Keep in Mind
If you have perfect memory, you will be able to remember everything from this article. If not, there are some key take-aways to keep in mind. Happiness and survival comes not just from things you remember, but also things you choose to forget. A healthy mind is not just one that can recall a lot of things, but also one that skips over certain elements.
The curse of perfect memory has been a constant trope in the history of literature. Borges’ character of Funes could instantly recall anything that happened in his life, but failed when needing to generalize on a higher level. Not being able to think in the abstract is not the only potential downside of perfect memory. A much more negative aspect of infinite recollection is the pain associated with not forgetting agonizing events in your life.
As Aristotle argues, balance is the key to having a good life. You need to have a good memory, but not so good that it hampers your functioning. You need to be able to forget, but preferably only the things that keep you down.
Forgetting painful memories is not easy. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe said it best when giving advice on how to do that.
“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.” — Edgar Allan Poe
An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.