Intuitively, we tend to think of forgetting as failure, as something gone wrong in our ability to remember.
Now, Canadian neuroscientists with the University of Toronto are challenging that notion. In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Neuron, they review the current research into the neurobiology of forgetting and hypothesize that our brains purposefully work to forget information in order to help us live our lives.
I spoke with Blake Richards, one of the co-authors of the paper, who applies artificial intelligence theories to his study of how the brain learns. He says that in the AI world, there's something called over-fitting — a phenomenon in which a machine stores too much information, hindering its ability to behave intelligently. He hopes that greater understanding of how our brains decide what to keep and what to forget will lead to better AI systems that are able to interact with the world and make decisions in the way that we do.
We hear a lot about the study of memory. Is the study of forgetting a relatively new thing?
Within psychology, there's a long history of work examining forgetting. So that's not a new field of study. But the neuroscientists — those of us who work with the biology of how the brain works — have not really examined forgetting much in the past. Generally, the focus for the last few decades in neuroscience has been the question of how do the cells in our brains change themselves in order to store information and remember things. It's only been in the last few years that there's been an upswing in scientific studies looking at what's happening inside our brains at the cellular level that might actually produce forgetting.