Forgetting – Humanity’s greatest gift

By Jeng Yang

We’ve frequently extolled the virtues of remembering. We hail those with perfect memory as heroes. Hell, we even have World Memory Championships. Sometimes we don’t remember the fact that memories are dangerous things.

You’ve probably asked people how their thought processes work. Mine works pretty badly; I reached today’s topic by thinking about how I or anyone else would or could move on from the death of a loved one. I decided to think about the gift of forgetting.

A neurologist, a Dr. McGaugh from UC Irvine, put it quite sweetly: ‘If you used to go out with Bob and now you’re married to Bill, you want to be able to say, ‘I love you, Bill.’ ‘

It’s a common enough phrase; Time heals all wounds. We’ve all accepted this to be pretty true. However, the implications of this statement is that we will surely forget the tragedy! For what is time other than the possibility of something being forgotten?

But I can move on without forgetting a person.

That’s true, but at the same, you stop thinking about them all the time. That’s pretty much the definition of moving on. We accept the possibility of moving on, but reject outright the concept of forgetting because we’ve covered it up so nicely in politically correct terms. There is no progress without forgetting, because our past can be a ladder that allows us to climb higher, while being the chain that holds us back.

Sometimes too, we get lucky enough to forget how horrible of a person we’ve been.

More importantly, or more scientifically, forgetting frees our brains to do other tasks. In a study reported by the New York Times, the ability to forget has been linked to the ability to process new information. They’ve even reported that people who are able to disassociate (through actively inhibiting memories) meaning from pre-established words are more likely to be capable of being bilingual. After all, to learn a new language is to suppress your ‘natural’ interpretation of the world and substitute a new one. Without being able to ‘inhibit memories’, the knowledge from the new language could not be absorbed by the mind. ‘Inhibiting memories’ may not sound very much like forgetting, but it may perhaps be another way of ‘letting go’.

Interestingly, I’ve even found religious justifications for ‘the gift of forgetting’:

“With the strength God has empowered us with, we will completely leave it all behind.” – Blogspot: In The Midst of Her

“If we constantly remembered every transgression we committed, whether towards God or towards our fellow human, we would probably be filled with so much guilt that we could never feel worthy to ask for forgiveness and repair these relationships.” – Jewish

What is memory and forgetting to you?

2 thoughts on “Forgetting – Humanity’s greatest gift

  1. Forgetting is a part of the human process. We take in new stimuli day in day out and we all struggle with keeping the things (i.e knoweldge, skill) that we already have. It’s up to the extent that we refuse to adapt to new stimuli just because we are so emotionally attached to what we have, and we fear losing it cause it’s taking away a part of you.

    End of the day, the human is the balancer between the future and the past. We are the beings of the present, taking in the new and yet, still being able to hold on to our past. Why? Cause the past defines our behaviour for the present and our hopes and dreams of the future defines our direction forward.

    We cannot not hold on to all of our past, neither could we fulfil all our dreams for the future.


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