Art of Forgetting
In today’s world information is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere, you can’t escape. All these libraries, books, social media accounts, YouTube videos, PDFs and Websites need to be processed at some point. The relevant information needs to be taken out, all the irrelevancies need to be left behind. But it becomes increasingly difficult to do something meaningful with all that information. Filtering and sorting seem to become key.
If we start looking at the history of information it’s not so much the process of storing and organizing all this data that seems to be a burdon, it’s the act of forgetting that consumes most of our energy. Forgetting is work, forgetting means effort. You could even go as far as to say that forgetting is as important as remembering to process data successfully.
Forgetting is like creating a mental barrier against all the unnecessary things and only let through the important things. This mechanism is also called active inhibition and we practice it everyday.
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Looking at our brains forgetting means transferring information from short term memory to more long term memory solutions. In a way information is processed and externalized here. It’s then not part of our immediate awareness anymore. It’s a bit like the difference of your RAM memory versus your SSD harddisk on your computer or on your phone. Both are necessary for successful work, they depend on each other. Trashing short term memory and moving it to our external harddrives, that’s how long term learning happens, as paradoxical as it may sound.
Today’s problem is not so much to acquire enough information, it’s the act of focusing on the really important parts that lead to new thoughts and ideas. So it’s a question of choice. And as forgetting, choice means putting a lot of effort into it as well.
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It’s also interesting to know that “cramming” seemingly meaningless information into our heads before a test or an exam obviously focuses too much on storage strength, our ability to store and handle information. What we should focus instead is our retrieval strength, our ability to access and connect with all that stored information in our heads. Look at all these memory artists that are able to remember incredibly large numbers or silly unconnected facts in seemingly random order. What they do is to create an inner system, a diagram, a methodology to link all these random facts together and make sense out of them. It’s a bit like the famous childhood memories from Marcel Proust who was able to retrieve the most vivid memories from his youth while being exposed to the smell of some fresh Madeleines. Memory artists just use such mental cues deliberately and not just involuntary. Our brains are fabulous connection machines, not so much ideal storage machines.
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In an ageing society we often forget how graceful, even fruitful the act of forgetting can be. In all of our lives we already had moments where we wished we could experience certain unforgettable events again as if they would happen for the very first time. Of course that’s not possible most of the time. Some of our most vivid experiences are permanent and can’t be undone. We’re spoiled forever, the uniqueness of that certain moment is gone. That’s why we so often use the term “spoiler alert” on TV and on social media these days.
In the end a “spoiler alert” is nothing more or nothing less than a blissful way of worshipping the art of forgetting.
- Gleick, J. (2011) The information: a history, a theory, a flood. Pantheon Books, New York.
- Ahrens, S. (2017) How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
- Proust, M. (2000) In Search of Lost Time, Volume I: Swann’s Way (A Modern Library E-Book). Modern Library.