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The Benefits Of Forgetting


The next time you misplace your glasses, lose your car keys, or can’t recall someone’s name, take heart. Forgetting is not necessarily a failure of your mind. It is a required function that helps your mind to work best.

That was the underlying message Dr. Scott A. Small, a physician specializing in aging and dementia, gave to about 70 participants during a recent Zoom presentation sponsored by Noble Horizons senior community in Salisbury, Conn.

Small is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he is director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. During the hour-long presentation on Aug. 17, he discussed his latest book, “Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering.” The distinguished memory researcher offered insights into memory loss and Alzheimer’s. 

Forgetfulness, said Small (who splits his time between his homes in Millerton, N.Y., and New York City), is more than just normal: It’s actually beneficial. 

“If you know somebody who is bitter with pain, a tyrant, vengeful, antisocial, you know someone whose memory-forgetting balance is off,” Small said. “Fear results when the brain burns too hot and operates on fear memories. You become antisocial and can’t open up your heart to become prosocial.”

When old information is pushed out of the brain, he said, new memories form. Small explained that a structure buried deep in the brain’s temporal cortex, the hippocampus, allows the brain to save memories. An area in the prefrontal cortex, located behind our foreheads, is the area that helps us open and retrieve memories.

Whenever you save a document onto your computer hard drive, Small explained, or open a previously stored file, you are playing with your computer’s memory just as your brain does with your own. 

By clicking open, he said, you can scroll through your saved files, retrieve the right one, and recall it to your computer screen. Similarly, the prefrontal cortex scrolls through and recalls saved memories.

When we sleep, Small told participants, we clear our minds and clear our slates. People who are sleep-deprived, he said, tend to have “too many memories that haven’t been trimmed down.” 

For example, individuals suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) possess too many fear memories, resulting in brain malfunction. Small refers to this as the “brain burning too hot.”

The forum also featured a question-and-answer portion, where participants posed questions such as: What kinds of tests are out there to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s or is simply experiencing normal forgetting, or age-related forgetting? What can people do to keep their brain healthy? Can microbes in the gut affect what is happening in the brain? How has COVID-19 affected the brain and memory?

If you were not able to attend the Noble Horizons presentation and would like to watch a replay of Small’s talk and find the answers to the above questions, a recording of the event can be viewed on Noble Horizons’ website, www.noblehorions.org.

For a deeper dive into the mysteries of the brain and an explanation of how the right mix of forgetting and memory allows you to be emotionally healthy, Small’s book, “Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering,” illuminates the mysteries of the brain with personal stories and the latest scientific data on the topic of memory and memory loss. 

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