Lauren Gravitz in Nature:
Memories make us who we are. They shape our understanding of the world and help us to predict what’s coming. For more than a century, researchers have been working to understand how memories are formed and then fixed for recall in the days, weeks or even years that follow. But those scientists might have been looking at only half the picture. To understand how we remember, we must also understand how, and why, we forget.
Until about ten years ago, most researchers thought that forgetting was a passive process in which memories, unused, decay over time like a photograph left in the sunlight. But then a handful of researchers who were investigating memory began to bump up against findings that seemed to contradict that decades-old assumption. They began to put forward the radical idea that the brain is built to forget. A growing body of work, cultivated in the past decade, suggests that the loss of memories is not a passive process. Rather, forgetting seems to be an active mechanism that is constantly at work in the brain. In some — perhaps even all — animals, the brain’s standard state is not to remember, but to forget. And a better understanding of that state could lead to breakthroughs in treatments for conditions such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even Alzheimer’s disease.
“What is memory without forgetting?” asks Oliver Hardt, a cognitive psychologist studying the neurobiology of memory at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. “It’s impossible,” he says. “To have proper memory function, you have to have forgetting.”