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The Importance Of Forgetting

“Just put it out of your mind,” may be better advice than you think: We’ll look at memory and the scientific importance of forgetting.

This rendered 3-D computed tomography (CT) scan looking down the human head shows the complicated arteries and veins (in blue) supplying the brain above the base of the skull (in green). (Kai-hung Fung/National Science Foundation)

This rendered 3-D computed tomography (CT) scan looking down the human head shows the complicated arteries and veins (in blue) supplying the brain above the base of the skull (in green). (Kai-hung Fung/National Science Foundation)

We talk so much about memory.  Not losing it.  Enhancing it.  Diving into it.  Working through it.  Sometimes, says a raft of new science, it’s better to just forget.  Forgetting, it turns out, may be a key part of mental health, mental hygiene.

Sigmund Freud said deal with it.  Dive into that repressed stuff.  Work it out.  Work it through. Tony Soprano said “fuggetaboutit.”  Tony Soprano may have been right.  Remember and you’ll ruminate.  Ruminate, and you’re bummed.  The brain is also built to forget.

This hour, On Point: memory and forgetting, and when forgetting may be for the best.

-Tom Ashbrook



Ingrid Wickelgren, an editor at Scientific American Mind and the author of the Streams of Consciousness blog at ScientificAmerican.com. Her special report in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind, titled Forgetting is Key to a Healthy Mind.

Michael Anderson, a professor at the University of Cambridge and a member of their Memory Research Group.

Alison Winter, associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. She’s the author of the forthcoming book Memory: Fragments of a Modern History.

From Tom’s Reading List

Scientific American Mind “Solomon Shereshevsky could recite entire speeches, word for word, after hearing them once. In minutes, he memorized complex math formulas, passages in foreign languages and tables consisting of 50 numbers or nonsense syllables. The traces of these sequences were so durably etched in his brain that he could reproduce them years later, according to Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, who wrote about the man he called, simply, “S” in The Mind of a Mnemonist.”

Salon “One of the most tenacious themes of 20th-century memory research was the idea that people tormented by the memories of terrible experiences could benefit from remembering them, and from remembering them better. The assumption — broadly indebted to psychoanalysis — was that psychological records of traumatic events often failed to be fully “integrated” into conscious memories. ”



“Unforgettable”  by Nat King Cole

“Forget You”  by Cee Lo Green

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  • Plain old Cory

    I think I have this problem.  I’m an assassin when it comes to trivia games, but I’m hard pressed to tell you what I had for lunch yesterday.  Lots of cobwebs and old chests full of junk in my brain.

  • LJS

    I hope you start with debunking the popular belief that memory is like a DVD — a accurate, unchanging record one can replay at will. And the Kennedy Assassination/flashbulb memory theory — that certain memories are indelibly and accurately impressed in the brain, unchanging, and can be replayed accurately at will.
      Are you going to get into recovered memory and the fiasco that theories about recovering memories for forgotten early child abuse created in the courts in the 80s and 90s?

  • kestral

    I wonder if this exemplifies a certain personality type. I am the kind of person who lives very much in the present/future. I hardly ever think about the past.  I just put it out of my mind. It makes forgiveness easier!

    As for memory, it amazes me what people THINK they remember as clear as day, yet frequently what they remember never happened at all.  Fascinating. We filter our memories through so much – our emotions, our hopes, our prejudices.

    • Anonymous

      Interesting.  People often times can forget deeds, but it’s the impression of the deeds that linger.  The famous case is of HM, who had part of his hippocampus removed when he was in his early 20′s.  He could no longer form long term memories.  He was forever stuck in his happy 20′s and when you leave the room even for a few seconds, he would completely forget he ever met you.

      Now they did an expeirment on HM where a person came in with a hidden buzer in his hand that gave a shock to those who shook the person’s hand.  Well, HM shook this person’s hand, was shocked, and on subsequent visits was uneasy about shaking this person’s hands, even though he forgot the deed.

  • Matt

    grt topc, cnt wait 4 a lstn

  • nj

    I hope i remember to listen.

  • gemli

    I’m intrigued by those people who have lost their short-term memory, and must live forever in the present.  Except for not being bothered by reruns on TV, I can’t see an up side.

    I’m also intrigued by those people who have lost their short-term memory, and must live forever in the present.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Intriguing!  Enjoy your present!  The burdens of the past are past?

  • Sarahdeo

    Is there a scientific difference between men and women regarding memory?

    I find myself (a woman) remembering minor things said to me much better than my husband does. I frequently envy him because he seems to be able to just put things out of his mind while I remember and rethink.

  • Anonymous

    Great topic.  I hope your guests touch on some of Nietzsche’s work on the subject in “The Use and Abuse of History”, where Nietzsche outlines the importance of forgetting, or the importance of living unhistorically. 

    Further, I wanted to share a quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche writes: “Beware that a statue does not slay you!”.  In it’s particular context, Nietzsche is concerned with the role of historical figures, and their influence on contemporary life, namely, the danger if we do not challenge their ideas.

    More broadly it a metaphor to deal with life.  A statue is like a memory; it is inanimate, dead, and only has power if you chose to look in it’s direction.  If it serves as inspiration, look at it often; if it serves to weaken your will, then, as he writes, do not become a slave to a statue.

    Psychologists may disagree with whether memories are truly inanimate; though I have generally found this to be the case.  Most importantly, however, I like how this empowers the present-self by suggesting that we take ownership of these memories, and decide how we would like them to shape our life.  

    We may refer to deeply troubling memories as reasons for our present (undesired) reality; but we do this as a choice, and if done carelessly, at our peril.

  • Anne

    Look at our country right now! Have we *forgotten* to care about each other?? Income inequality has been the downfall of many. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

    I don’t care if my history teacher said something mean to me in class, but I DO care about the lessons he taught.

    • Anonymous

      I’m not sure if this comment was directed toward me (but for that matter — my politics are on the left).

      Nevertheless, Nietzsche is not objecting to learning history, he simply says that we need to learn how to selectively utilize memories and forgetfulness.

      For example, if we recall the immediate anger most Americans felt on 9/11 — if we live historically through that day, in our present lives… It will be difficult to advocate for peace.  Or many muslim/jewish conflicts are centuries old.

      On a more individual basis, a divorce or some troubling event may be so severe that we never endeavor to get out of bed or become depressed.  If we cannot ‘forget this’, we may never get out of bed.  

      We can blame this memory for our present state — but Nietzsche simply suggest, than we accept the reality of not getting out of bed.

      Anyway… I think we need to care about each other and that we need to learn history.  But… In line with Nietzche’s view, I think that history can be utilized or abused.

  • na na nana

    Great playlist of songs for the program.
    Love ON POINT!!!

  • jim

    we will forget more and more as long as technology improves. i use to remember over 30+ phone numbers in my head.

  • Anonymous

    I look forward for the On Point next hour because I am eager to forget the first hour, just for the sake of mental health. Yet, I am still wondering who among the three invited panelist was the most insipid. 

    • Terry Tree Tree

      That could be a good memory lapse.  You will get a LOT more that you want to forget, in the next eight months!

    • Persimmon

      I cast my vote for Ingrid Wickelgren as most insipid.  Yikes. 

  • Yar

    Couples adopt shared memories, they will rely on each other to store different types of data.  We also do that with technology, why remember your son’s cell phone number, it is in the address book.  Google has changed what try to remember.  We are in an age of rapid change, and the piece missing in our day is time to reflect.  You have to stop to allow memories move from short to long term storage.  The most valuable resource we can have is time to think.

  • Stillin

    I heard somewhere that memory was linked to migraines, which would make sense to me with regards to this topic. I myself seem to have little to no short term memory I don’t know why. I like to replay in my head, memories of things I like, on purpose. Happy Childhood memories. I also have a tendency, big, to latch on to things, memories, so it intrigues me that my short term memory is so shot. Also, one of my sisters had to have electric shock therapy, and it did erase some memories, good and bad. It interests me.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Sounds like this is attached to the abuse? 
         The lack of short-term memory could be attached to trying to forget, and ‘forgetting’ the wrong memories?

  • L armond

    What about being reminded of someone that drives you crazy and then you go off your rocket.  Only when a certain person, a real offender, is mentioned, a relative I doon’t want to hear about or be expected to respond about the news of.  That person must have some tag that sets my brain off.  I’d like to substitute an other name when I hear her name, but I am afraid I will start vocalizing it, and it is a brain injured person who keeps bringing her up to me.  So, I know they can’t help it.  But I can’t help not wanting her name to drop into my life.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Any pleasant people that you know, or know of, famous persons with the same name, that you can train yourself to think of first?

  • Ellen Dibble

    My first boss (actually the second in command):  “I have a very good forgettery.”

  • Anonymous

    Do we need to forget?  Or do we just need to learn Zen?  Memory is useful because it allows us to recognize we are in a rut.  Zen instructs us that the pain we get from memory is really an alarm clock to stay present.

  • Sarah Michael

    How does this align with disorders like PTSD?  I did a treatment stream of EMDR to address reactions to a deeply suppressed trigger.  Had I not kept at that elusive event, I would not be as healthy as I am today.  How do you decide which memories and when to suppress?

  • Ellen Dibble

    It seems to me a no-brainer that people need to be allowed to process things in order to be able to have cleared the decks.  If children aren’t helped in processing things, just told to get over it, pretend they aren’t hurt or mad, etc., then they’ll have a drag, a heavy weight, upon their consciousness.  

    And they won’t have the space to manage the contents of consciousness as well.  So ability to control mental contents or behaviors, to me, is a management issue.

  • Ellen Dibble

    The effects of age — how about that.  I’m 65 now, and for a few years I’ve noticed that I take a lot longer to process things, to get ready to focus.  Once a week I go out to socialize and do errands, and both physically and mentally, I do take all day to absorb that.  I thought I was getting smarter, able to extract a lot more from the various experiences of that day.  Maybe I’m getting slower.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Maybe both?

  • Stillin

    I like to think of this in terms of people, women, who have been with abusive mates. Do we “forget” so we can “forgive” and not have to deal with the mess of splitting up? When we do remember, it may be enough, to shut the door on the mate for good. I see some ties of this whole realm to abusive relationships. Having been out of an abusive relationship for many years now, I have both good and bad memories of it. I use the good memories to think, it was not a waster.I use the bad to remember, there were not enough of those good times.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Sorry you were abused, Lady.
         I find that women tend to use me to talk to about the abuser, or abusers in their past, so they can forget that abuse, and go on with another abuser.  Most of them won’t date me, after I allow them to tell me about the abusers! 
         It’s frustrating to me, because I need to know something about a lady before I will date her, ( is she legal age, single, tobbacco-free, non-addict, etc…)  I don’t abuse, and don’t intend to be abused.
          Good Life and Good Luck!

  • Laura

    Could there be a connection between ADHD and Dimentia or Alzh?  Has there been any studies?

  • Sherry

    What are the implications of this research for people with PTSD?  Is it better to just forget trauma?

    • Ellen Dibble

      There is a new therapy regarding eye movements that supposedly will control PTSD.  Let me find a link. EMDR. I thought it was like hypnosis, but here it says it’s painful.

  • Ellen Dibble

    In terms of small, immediate memories, that’s one thing.  In terms of life events, I think there are plenty of things that cannot be contextualized at the time.  It may be overwhelming, confusing; anyway, you may be lucky to see that information resurface at some point many years later when the perspective, and experience, and context from years later allow that particular life event to be absorbed.  Plenty of things have to be stowed at age five, but at age 65, one can deal with it.

    • Charlotte

      That was my experience. Read my comment above.

  • Stillin

    Is early childhood memory linked to the 5 senses? Like the aroma, the touch, etc of early memories? I love mine.

  • Todd

    I just caught part of this program on the radio.  Will there be a full version available online later?

    • Terry Tree Tree

      If Alex remembers!

  • Jennifer

    What role does forgiveness play in an individual’s ability to willfully forget?

  • PassinThru

    I had two separate college ID’s in 1975, and I remember both clearly.  I have no need whatsoever to do so.  Why haven’t I forgotten that?

  • Ray outisde Boston

    Question: What about foreign languages? I spent time growing up in Germany and can’t recall a lot of my fairly fluent German. Until I read or hear it, or even try to recall or learn something in a language other than German. Example: In Mexico, saw a car broken down and thought, “Aw, her hat eine Panne” — Panne was a word meaning breakdown that I learned in 8th grade German. I’m not sure I ever used it. What is that about?

  • Jemimah

    I can remember phone numbers, zip code numbers, credit card numbers…so easily.  But there are other things I’d love to recall and can’t–words, for instance!  Is there an explanation for that kind of phenomenon?

  • L armond

    Women are always saying that their babies grown so fast, and rush around taking pictures when they are infants.  With my first, now 30, I realized I had to forget the child of yesterday, because they are growing different everyday, and you have to respond to the new person daily, otherwise it would be like being parented by someone who is braini njured and can’t move on in time.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      A BIG mistake parents make.  Judging an adult child’s ability at something, by a memory of that child’s ability as a child!

  • adam

    Is there an easy way to expand your memory capabilities?  Is it even possible to improve your memory?  There always seems to be programs and methods but I’m doubtful that they’re anything more than teaching you how to concentrate more effectively?

    • Anonymous

      For adults, there is mnemonic techniques. Look up any books by Harry Lorrayne.  Or read Walking On The Moon with Einstein by Joshua Foer.

      There are no way to increase your natural memory, aside from focusing better.  There are new drugs in development that can help you.  Many of the ADHD drugs actually enhance learning for normal people.  Read ‘The Overflowing Brain’ by Torkel Klingberg.

      For concentration, get the application ‘IQ Boost’ for the iPhone.  Or read about ‘dual-n-back’.  This is a really grueling program that increases your focus and your working memory.  It has been proven to do so.  Plenty of papers out there.  You can even contact the original scientist who came up with it: Susanne Jaeggi.  She’s really helpful too.  

      If you read ‘The Overflowing Brain’ you’ll understand the theory behind IQ Boost.  The program taxes two modalities of your brain and makes it quite difficult to gain expertise by memorizing patterns, and in so doing, overrloads your working memory and hence your brain improves.

      Good luck.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jimmy-Scoville/581508499 Jimmy Scoville

        GREAT show.

        I wish I could forget because in the remembering, I find stress & those wayward emotions create not only migraines but also seizures. But I was hyperactive as a child & one of your Guest explained how forgetting is harder for people like me.

        Zazen meditation does help. It allows me to gain peace & let go.

        Being on disability, unable to work in the past few years due to my extreme migraine condition, I find I am often homebound & that contributes to a lack of forgetting. In fact, it causes me to remember too much. In the past, I was able to at least misplace bad memories (abuse, things like that) & had a very fulfilling life.

        Thanks for the show.

  • Nutsnbolts123

    A half a century ago, Walter J. Freeman, II, who developed the therapeutic value of lobotomy, said that “A good forgetery is as important as a good memory,” to add a historical perspective to this discussion.

  • andrea

    Fascinating topic and research. I’d love it if you/On Point would revisit this topic.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      If they don’t forget?

  • Audry

    Would meditation help ADHD kids?
    Audry Gonder
    Ft. Mill, sc

    • Stillin

      meditation helps everyone. Trust that.

      • Yobo

        there are different kinds of meditation — be sure to explore and find the right one for an adhd kid.

  • Cisco / Cedar Rapids

    Is there any value in taking ‘Nootropics’, memory supplements. Such as Gingko Bilioba or any of the ‘Racetams’?

  • prpinyoc

    I believe that the true forgiveness should come from out heart and not from forget.  The question is how we can achieve the true forgiveness.  Know it, truly understand it, accept it as the way it is by nature and let it go.  May be?

    • Yobo

      Freedom from fear is very important. Hard to forgive someone when you are still afraid for your (or others’) safety because of the harm they may do.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I know that rumination and “stewing in your own juice” is regarded as a signal for bad mental health.  But I’d say the social context of someone who is ruminating may be failing them.  Everybody can’t process everything zip-zip-zip.  And plenty of things are very tough to process.  And terribly important to process.  Call it what you want; but you turn the thing over till you are satisfied with the understanding.  Such as why was I fired?  Why did so-and-so look at me like that?  Why is my child bullying the neighbor’s kid.

    • Yobo

      Please see my comment above (in reply to “Erin in Iowa” on how to stop obsessive thinking) — I think some people are just “wired” to think about things more intensely. Other people hate that, and as unpleasant it might be for them, I don’t think there’s anything inherently unhealthy about it.  Trick is to harness it, …and also to realize that others are probably not interested in hearing your thoughts!! :-) 

      Memory plays into it in strange ways. I have had difficult (even traumatic) experiences that I obsessed over (in excruciating detail) for months or years. Slowly, the memories faded. And then YEARS LATER, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a new memory or a new connection that I’d never made before, and the “why’s” were suddenly clarified. Like magic.

  • Sara in VT

    It seems like you’re partially talking about letting go of emotions connected to memory, which seems different than forgetting.  I heard of of a therapy, I don’t remember what it’s called, that helped people let go of their emotional attachment to their memories.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Is that EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?

  • Yar

    What about the exponential increase of information we must master to survive in the modern world? Does this change how we store and use our memories?

    • Anonymous

      Yes, it turns out that instead of learning facts themselves, we learn where we can get those facts.  So the area of the brain involved in location gets expanded and the area of ‘facts’ shrinks –in a manner of speaking.

  • Erin in Iowa

    HOW do you do this?  I overthink EVERYTHING and I can’t stop obsessing until I have something new to obsess over.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Oh, funny!  What are you obsessing over now?

    • Anonymous

      It’s hard to give you a lengthy answer on this in a forum, but perhaps you should just note what you are obsessing over in more detail than you may be accustomed to.  So, note you obsess on item C, and you might want to ask yourself, well, what was I thinking before C?  Maybe it was B.  And before that, perhaps it was A.  Now, don’t ask why you went from A to B to C, just note it.

      Then maybe later, you may want to go into detail.  So, what exactly was the sub-item in B that led me to C?  If you do this often enough, maybe you’ll see that every time you think of A, it leads to B then to C.

      What you’ll be doing is just looking at your mind stream.  It will be like lying on the  beach and watching each thought float by.  Occasionally, we get entranced and go on board, but when that happens, just go back on the beach and ask, “okay, I got off that ship, what lead me to get on it?”  and after you do that, go ahead and watch again, don’t beat yourself up for getting on a ship.

      This is a form of Eastern meditation.  The breathing meditations is the one most westerners know about and unfortunately the only one they know about.

      As you get accustomed to observing your mind steam, you will get to know the place of observation.  And you will be skilled enough to know when a ship is coming, and can make a choice whether to jump on board, as opposed to being enticed onboard.

      Good luck.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      I hope you find a way to handle it.  Could it be that you were blamed for some bad things, that you couldn’t see how you were to blame?

    • Yobo

      Erin, I do the same thing! Hate it because it’s so intense and draining, but have to admit that solutions to problems do sometimes come out of all that obsessing. I find that a few things help:

      1. accept it, don’t beat yourself up over it — I think some people are just “wired” that way. Don’t let others tell you that there’s “something wrong with you” and “why can’t you just let it go” etc.

      2. exercise (even just walking) — helps to burn off excess nervous energy, and some of my obsessing is pure nervous energy (in a problem-solving kinda way, not in a manic or neurotic kinda way). If exercise is not an option, then something else “fidgety” like playing solitaire (with real cards), knitting, doing jigsaw puzzles, etc. Depending on the topic, sometimes writing lists helps. 

      3. find someone you can talk to — getting it “out there” really helps focus your thoughts. Be sensitive to the other person’s limits and respect them. Maybe break up your sessions with several different people, in small doses each, and tone down anything negative. Some people hate to hear the intensity of my thoughts, even the positive ones. Others just think it’s weird or something. Others (people who really care about me) can listen but admit that they’re not really listening and, to be honest, it doesn’t bother me. Just allowing me to talk is a big, big help. Then there are others who will actually listen and engage in the topic. Rare gems, these people. In their cases, I’m sure to “be there for them” at a later time when they’re obsessing, too, to return the favor.

      4. watch movies to take away some of the intensity of your thoughts and re-focus your mind. Best if you can watch where you can rewind, coz your mind will be wandering. Try to catch every word (and rewind if you miss parts due to drifting back to obsessive thoughts). I find that the intensity is a little less after watching a movie. Spending time with friends or something social might also be good to take your mind off, but I don’t always trust that I can contain my thoughts, which could lead to embarassing social repurcussions.

      5. don’t act on your thoughts. If I do, I always regret it. (Unless your obsessive thoughts lead to some kind of creative/artistic output, I guess, which mine don’t.) I have made some amazing mistakes because I get something on my mind, can’t get it out of my head, and my perspective gets really distorted. On the other hand, good ideas also come to mind, inchoate thoughts begin to take shape, mysteries are solved, connections are made clear and all may become right in the universe…. but I can’t tell what’s what until I let my thoughts mellow.

      Then I just have to be careful not to forget them. :-)

    • Sofia

      just tell yourself, “Stop it. I’m obsessing. Get your “something new” picked out in advance–a pleasant scene, a favorite comforting item to think about, whatever–so that when you recognize you’re obsessing (be mindful of obsessing), you can tell your brain “Stop,” and replace the obsession with the pleasant feeling, item, memory instead. This substitution is a good bridge for breaking the memory chatter that can drag you down. Remember, it’s simple. Say “Stop” and immediately think of that one nice flower, food, stuffed animal, scenic view.

  • Matt

    Being forgetful is a blessing

  • Stillin

    I remember hearing a story on radio, probably onpoint, but it had to do with U.S. psychologists vs. an African country, …basically it was about how the U.S psy. came over there and tried to treat people, by sitting them in a darkened room and going over their bad memories, rehashing them….and the African country psy person said, why are you not outdoors, in the beautiful sunshine, enjoying the day? They couldn’t understand why the U.S . person thought he was “treating” the patient. In a way, it is the present vs. the past, memories.

  • homemovie

    It seems common after years of exposure to images from family photographs and home movies people mistakenly incorporate them as memories.  What images come to mind when you think of someone from the past?  Often I find it is an image from a photograph. 


    Tom:  Some folks seem to be easily able to put things out of their mind, especially those who want to be free of guilt.  Am wondering if sociopaths find it easy and useful to put things right out of their minds.   By the way as a resident of Fort mill, South Carolina I am right now trying to forget the GOP candidATES…THEY ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY, WHAT A BUNCH.

    • Terry Tree Tree

      My sympathy! 

    • Terry Tree Tree

      GOOD QUESTION!!  Some of the most destructive people that I have known, disavow any memory of them doing wrong!  Some hide it behind ‘Christianity’!

      • Yobo

        Yes!!! People with “selective memory” — I hate that!

  • BHA in Vermont

    If people working in the ER don’t get, and don’t have the time, to follow up on the patients, who is checking to make sure the patients’ outcomes are good and if not, what could/should have been done differently IN the ER??

    • Ellen Dibble

      I read somewhere that those least likely to have PTSD are female police officers, those trained in a certain way.  I don’t recall why I recall “female,” but that squares with the ER bit.   As to ADHD and social context, how badly do the intrusive advertisements on network TV interfere with our capacity to focus on the more meaningful parts of a broadcast?  Maybe we thereafter do NOT focus.  We dump everything from 6:30 to 7:00, or whatever.

  • Sarah

    I wonder if we are over-extending the finding of this study. It sounds to me like the mechanism they have found is not acting on the memory itself, but rather its just opening and closing the door to our conscious mind. Its allowing us to not think about it *right now* but that doesn’t mean its forgotten forever.

    • Lou

      I have to agree with you Sarah

    • Ellen Dibble

      Haven’t we been learning from brain studies that humans can only manage a certain number of conscious things at one time?  And therefore multitasking renders ourselves less effective in each task?  “Manage” to me means hold in conscious memory.

      • Terry Tree Tree

        One of the best examples refuting the multitasking inability, is combat pilots, and astronauts.  They HAVE to multitask for long periods of time!

  • john

    Make the most of your regrets; never smother your
    sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and
    integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.Henry David Thoreau

  • Modavations

    I had something to say on the subject,but it’s slipped my mind

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Must be the lead?  At least you haven’t gone ‘mad as a hatter’, or have you? 

  • Patti, vemont

    what about the emotional content of memories?  Consider a childhood with a severely mentally ill parent–you need to have, and recall, your empathy, no?  How does the protective mechanism of forgetting balance with this?

    • Yobo

      Funny, that.

      I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but…  I used to forget why I hated my sister. As adults, we didn’t see each other for years at a time, and during that time I would remember that I hated her, but I just didn’t remember why. So in moments of sentimentality or sheer forgetfulness, I would agree to a family get-together. “It’s been years,” I would say to myself. “I don’t even remember why I’m avoiding her. Time to let bygones be bygones…” Invariably she would do something cruel or damaging to me and I would get angry and vow not to ever see her again. Repeat every 5 years. Until I started keeping a diary, and one year I read what I’d written from the previous family get-together. Much easier to decline an invitation (with conviction) when I knew very clearly the reason for steering clear!!

      So that’s one example where “forgive and forget” was the source of further pain for me.

  • Tina

    No wonder art has been ruminating on itself for decades now! No wonder we have reality TV shows!!!
    Art needs SOME interface with memory; and society needs some meaningful interface with art!

    • Tina

      I was racing off when I wrote my comment, above.  I should have said:  “We need SOME Art that interfaces with memory; and society….(as written)”.  

  • Ellen Dibble

    Is forgiveness more associated with forgetting, or with what I’ll call professionalism, an ability to get on with business, to take things in stride, to transcend where it makes sense.

    • Steve

      In my mind, forgiveness is more akin to “transcending” where it does not make sense

  • Csav81

    Fascinating, think about Facebook, makes it harder to forget the past…

    • Anonymous

      Exactly, the digits are there forever. Facebook and Google don’t forget. The footprints we now make are not those on a sandy beach, but are those impressed into concrete. Same with books and knowledge. No longer will knowledge be shaped by the books that survive over time and are selected for preservation by libraries, rather Google Books will digitally preserve everything – the whole mass of published and recorded matter – forever. There are some upsides to all of that, but some downsides, as well. No forgetting. No erasing the past. Who, humans or computers, will create the filters of the future and shape knowledge, discerning the important from the trivial? Just try and forget and the internet will be there to keep you connected – to your past. 

      Recommended reading: The Googlization of Everything and Too Big To Know.

  • Lisa B.

    I have to wonder if the privilege of forgetting isn’t a logical accompaniment to the onslaught of information available in the digital age.  We now have machines that can “remember” and deliver huge, evocative barrages of images, ideas, events, etc., to us instantly, allowing us to let go, to be more selective.  Also, this instant availability ALLOWS us to forget, to let go, because we know there are so many things we can retrieve so easily…

  • James

    Darwinist explanations can sometimes be misleading; but I could see how in a more dangerous environment–where sudden events may occur in rapid succession with long spells of relative calm in between–it would be evolutionarily advantageous to be able to temporarily forget traumatic or useless information and then revisit one’s thoughts and memories later on when it is safe to do so. Perhaps the reason why talk therapy is important in addition to ‘forgetting for the meantime’ is that people have lest time for independent retrospection these days?

  • Cathy Plas

    I read the novel “Spilling Clarence” by Anne Ursu about a town where a leak from chemical plant causes everyone to remember everything.  It was fascinating to read how the characters reacted and dealt with repressed issues in their lives.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Maybe there’s conventional remembering, sort of like copycat yawning.  The guest is talking about her father was not a conventional thinker — had an idea of what he CHOSE to have in his brain.  I’m thinking group-think, group-forget.

    • Yobo

      Do you mean “collective” remembering?

      Interesting point — shared memories as a tool for enhancing group cohesion…

  • Alex from Danbury, CT

    When I was in Mississippi doing Katrina Relief with a small NGO (Hands on USA) I spent just over 2 months doing work. When I was there, I had seen a few people burn-out in under 2 weeks due to the sheer emotional stress of the situation. Those of us that were long-term found a way to block it out and that’s what kept us going.

  • Anonymous

    From an evolutionary perspective, forgetting allows us to invent new ways of doing things.


  • Ellen Dibble

    I think brain scans show vastly more in memory than is in conscious memory.  This makes me think of the way I take a day to “get over” a trek around town.  I don’t know what I’m processing, but I’m not ready to totally focus.

  • Christina

    How does technology work into this? Are people today better able to push things out of mind because we know we can always retrieve information on the internet?

    • Yobo

      Excellent point. I sometimes find it difficult to talk to younger people who grew up with the internet because we tend to think so differently about remembering details, trivia, etc. With people my own age, we share memories of historical events, report scientific breakthroughs and share various facts and information with each other as a way of being sociable — maybe it’s just “making conversation,” but I also wonder if maybe our social circle used to be an important way (or the *only* way to learn something new, explore divergent opinions and synthesize ideas. These days, if I converse in the same way with the younger crowd, they are irritated or even irate. Some, it seems, think that I’m insulting their intelligence, lecturing to them, or trying to influence them in some way – like, “if I cared, I would just look it up myself, dude!”

      • Yobo

        Also, this reminds me…
        Sometimes, when I’m stressed or when events have “triggered” certain difficult memories, I might wake up in the middle of the night and be so caught up with those memories that I can’t get back to sleep. For many years, I would lay awake for hours, sometimes till morning, thoughts running rampant or me feebly trying to stop them. It was awful.

        Now, in the middle of the night, in the comfort of my bed, I turn on my laptop and watch a movie, and I’m asleep within 30 minutes.  (Forget Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and “proper sleep hygiene”!!!) I think the storyline engages my mind so that I get caught up in the plot and characters, which gives my own nervous system a rest so that sleep can take over. Works like a charm.

  • Lucia in Kentucky

    It is important to be able to distinguish between working cognitively with a situation as it is and cutting or letting go of the ruminations of all the “what if’s” which continue to cause us emotional turmoil.  Also, the body cannot be disconnected from the brain when it comes to memory and emotion.

  • Sara in VT

    Regarding yoga etc: keep practicing, be patient, let go of the idea that this is at all quick.  There may be a quick fix, but letting go of our emotional attachment to it may help.

    • Yobo

      And… it’s important to understand that yoga is not “an exercise routine for flexible people.” Your level of flexibility and fitness are not important — anyone can do yoga because the point is to help relax and strengthen your body so that your mind will be better able to relax and focus. So… the point of yoga is not to push your body into the poses — the poses only serve to help isolate and stretch/strengthen certain parts of the body. If you *try* to move your body *toward* the poses, then you are already “doing yoga.” Yogis who have been doing it for a long time naturally have strong and pliable bodies. First come the poses, then comes the strength and flexibility. (Many people think it’s the other way around.)

      One more important point is that yoga (in its original form in India) was made by men, for men. I’m just saying…

  • Ellen Dibble

    Queues for depression?  Far more important, the panelists might want to consider, would be the queues for drug “use,” and people who are trying cognitive restructuring that way.

  • john

    “When they say ‘repent’, I wonder what they meant”
    -Leonard Cohen

  • Donna

    Oddly enough, I was having very upsetting dreams for years and years….finally one day I just adamantly told myself that I WOULD NOT dream or remember my dreams. And I have not since! Finally a good night’s sleep…!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Suppressing and forgetting, and processing and forgetting, are 2 different things. With the latter you forget because you are “done” with it. The former is just throwing it into a mental closet where it’s going spill out some time in the future.

  • L armond

    I could always “forget things for now” because I put in on a list that I reviewed every am.  I knew I would be reassessing, or at least quickly asking myself if I had enough information or if the situation was now timely for ‘effective action.’  Now, emotional things, you are always running into someone and thinking, “Remember, this person can’t think their way out of a bucket, because they have to deal with how Aunt Agatha thinks.  They trusted her for so long, they are not going to believe you, even if you have the cure.  Give it up.  So, I say:  “Don’t ask me.  Check with who you trust.  

    • Terry Tree Tree

      Very good!  Thanks!

  • Emorywhite

    I was doing great suppressing an old painful memory until I heard this radio program and was reminded of the importance of forgetting it.

    • Yar

      Remember the John Prime song “Dear Abby”: 
      Chorus:You have no complaint. You are what your are and you ain’t what you ain’t. So listen up Buster, and listen up good. Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood

      • Steve

        and the deaf can have my ears, if they don’t mind the size

    • Terry Tree Tree

      If you had remembered that you wanted to keep forgetting, you would have remembered to forget to listen to the program?

  • Lou

    I don’t believe we can puposely forget anything. We simply replace thoughts/memories with other thoughts/memories thus pushing them to the side on a temporary basis. Old thoughts always reappear. At least they do in my head.

  • Charlotte

    I remembered childhood sexual abuse when I was in my 50′s. I am 73 now. Those memories surfaced when I was in a very safe place in my life at a time when I could go for therapy and work through the trauma. I always felt I was “wired” to forget and I indeed think that was the case. It was very important to able to not bury those memories any longer. I feel that I acted out of that experience without knowing  why.

  • Lou

    …and Charlottes head.

  • M. Snow, MAT, MPH

    Great introduction to understanding memory!  As a work/life and relationship coach, my training helps me give clients new perspectives and skills for living in the present and consciously choosing goals and thoughts; this is somewhat based on Buddhist notions of “detachment” and over time replaces the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” trap that consumes our energy and keeps us trapped in the past and in others’ agendas. Coaching can be effective in conjunction with therapy, but isn’t useful for
    people with diagnoses of severe mental illness.  I’d be glad to suggest guests for a show!

  • Anonymous

    For at least 3,500 years a mental technology known as dhyana has been employed, successfully, to become aware of, process and be rid of the controlling power of memories. None of us can survive without using our memories and it is true that memory (uncontrolled) can wreak lives. The challenge is not to force yourself to forget (which is impossible to do) but rather to integrate what is there by bringing it into consciousness and releasing it. It works. It has been working for millennia and it is not difficult to learn and master.

  • http://profiles.google.com/adamhendron Adam Hendron

    It was very telling when the guest cited Bible memorization as a waste of intelligence. Facing the imminent return of Christ, this is as the devil would have it.  “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  This comfort is lost both to those who forget and to those who do not avail themself of the Savior. 

    • Yobo

      Um, Adam I think you misunderstood the point.
      The Bible may be equally important now, but you don’t have to rely on a good memory to access it.

      In the 21st century, you don’t *need to* remember the Bible. If you want to know the stories of the Bible, you just go and look it up.

      In our world, the Bible is available in bookstores, libraries, internet.  But a thousand years ago, you couldn’t read the Bible, you had to hear it. (You know: There was no printing press — monks had to hand-copy every page — have you ever tried to hand-copy the Bible? So you can imagine why there were so, so, so few copies of the Bible around. Most people couldn’t read anyway. People might have gotten religious instruction from their parish priest, but mass was said in Latin…)

      BUT… if you had a good memory and could remember your religious lessons, then you would be in a better position to benefit from all that the Bible offers. If you didn’t and couldn’t, then you wouldn’t.

  • Ppargamma1

    Real quickly…how does this all work with children who have been chronically abused and trying to make it as well-functioning adults.  One needs to remember some and forget other memories to succeed.

  • Roymerritt19

    I can remember intimate details from my childhood and have always been able to retain the most trivial facts on a vast array of subjects.  When serving in the Army Security Agency we had to read perforations in teletype tape rather than have the letter printed on the tape as is usually the case with teletype.  We remembered the patterns and the number of perforations that made up a letter.  I could easily read a sentence by reading these patterns not the least requiring letters.  Many people weren’t capable of this despite their effort at trying.  I think those with a good memory are somehow able to pay attention to detail and it is somehow a genetic anomaly.  

  • http://www.helenepstein.com/ Helen Epstein

    I live with a man who forgets anything painful or unpleasant. It makes for a very sunny, optimistic personality but it’s often difficult to live with someone who forgets details of life that he doesn’t consider important enough to clutter his brain with…

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735668684 Amie Branch

      It’s not a matter of choosing to do this- it becomes a difficult habit to change.

  • Roy Mac

    Gee, Tom.  What an interesting guest, and what an interesting topic.  Maybe you could re-do that facinating hour with Candice Bushnell tomorrow!  yawn…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jimmy-Scoville/581508499 Jimmy Scoville

    GREAT show. I wish I could forget because in the remembering, I find stress & those wayward emotions create not only migraines but also seizures. But I was hyperactive as a child & one of your Guest explained how forgetting is harder for people like me. Zazen meditation does help. It allows me to gain peace & let go. Being on disability, unable to work in the past few years due to my extreme migraine condition, I find I am often homebound & that contributes to a lack of forgetting. In fact, it causes me to remember too much. In the past, I was able to at least misplace bad memories (abuse, things like that) & had a very fulfilling life. Thanks for the show.

  • http://www.edgartownnews.blogspot.com Sara Piazza

    Being able to forget is a valuable skill, and highly underrated. If I couldn’t forget the pile of work I’ve put away, out of sight, I’d never finish the task I’m presently working on.

  • http://twitter.com/AlexAvail Alex G

    Good segment, however it did not provide the social value it could have, the comment between 8.50 – 9.10 should have been countered by: “how can humans practice emotional neutrality – balance?”

    In short, the American culture has conditioned us to
    attribute positive and negative values to each experience; this is NOT true across all cultures. (Personally, I think this is a bi-product of living in a capitalist society with its undertone of “haves vs have-nots”).  Therefore, when one recalls a memory that has been cataloged as negative/positive it evokes a physiological change producing anxiety, excitement, etc … 

    The amazing thing about humans is that as we experience
    something, we have an opportunity to assign a value in real-time: positive, negative, neutral (nothing). Knowing this, we shouldn’t want to suppress our memory, but instead want to attribute a neutral value to all moments, allowing for a balanced recall of the knowledge in the future.
    Stay pleasant, stay in the present, meditate:

  • hillary12

    Glad people aren’t much talking about forgiveness which is highly over-rated.  You do NOT need to forgive to forget. 

  • robert

    really but not possible unless u get alzeimers. just not possible. we can all fake it but everything that happens to us will always come up for whatever reasons.

  • robert


    • http://twitter.com/aloysiusokon Aloysius Okon

      Way to be off-topic, man. Can we stick to the subject at hand, please? 

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  • Hfoot

    as always a great show. I’ve always been curios about memory because mine seems to have a mind of it’s own. I was never good at school but I’m at least as smart as most or better. I do know memories are repressed having survived an abusive relationship, a novel worth has been repressed. Emotions and other stimulus surely have a lot to do with memory.  I have often thought it would be nice to have my memory fixed

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Sep 18, 2014
Flickr/Steve Rhodes

After a summer of deadly clashes between Gaza and Israel, we talk to Jews on the left and right about the future of liberal Zionism. Some say it’s over.

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Billionaires. We’ll look at the super super rich, and their global shaping of our world.

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Bob Dylan and Victor Maymudes at "The Castle" in LA before the 1965 world tour. Lisa Law/The Archive Agency)

A new take on the life and music of Bob Dylan, from way inside the Dylan story. “Another Side of Bob Dylan.”

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Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson watches from the sidelines against the Oakland Raiders during the second half of a preseason NFL football game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. (AP/Ann Heisenfelt)

The NFL’s Adrian Peterson and the emotional debate underway about how far is too far to go when it comes to disciplining children.

On Point Blog
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