The Importance of Forgetting

I posted last night on the subject of forgetting what we read. Having promised a friend that I would post a follow-up quotation on the subject of forgetting, here goes.

Somewhat ironically, it took me a while to find this quotation, as I couldn’t remember where I had come across it…

Dave Shenk asks why something as sophisticated as the human brain would develop with ‘an apparent built-in fuzziness, a tendency to regularly forget, repress and distort information and experience.’ He argues that, far from being a deficiency, this represents a crucial and invaluable feature of our mental processing: ‘Forgetting is not a failure at all, but an active metabolic process, a flushing out of data in the pursuit of knowledge and meaning.’

To elaborate on the point, Shenk refers to the famous Russian psychologist A.R. Luria, whose case-study with S., a newspaper reporter from Moscow with perfect memory, who forgot virtually nothing that he heard or saw, reveals how this supposed ideal may prove far from desirable. S. had an astounding capacity to remember details, a capacity with no clear limits. He could exhibit faultless recall of pages of random data, and recite them from memory in various orders, even many years after first seeing them.

However, S. ‘was plagued by an inability to make meaning out of what he saw.’ Presented with an obviously ordered and meaningful selection of data, he was incapable of discerning the principle of order. He couldn’t make sense of prose and poetry and struggled to remember people’s faces, as they were constantly changing.

Luria also noted that S. came across as generally disorganised, dull-witted and without much of a sense of purpose or direction in life. This astounding man, then, was not so much gifted with the ability to remember everything as he was cursed with the inability to forget detail and form more general impressions. He recorded only information, and was bereft of the essential ability to draw meaning out of events….

What makes details hazy also enables us to prioritise information, recognise and retain patterns. The brain eliminates trees in order to make sense of, and remember, the forests. Forgetting is a hidden virtue. Forgetting is what makes us so smart.

I believe that this also has relevance to our modern obsession with the production and consumption of data (of which more this evening), an obsession that can impair our capacity to discern meaning and render us intellectually sluggish as a society. Much as the individual brain, a society fixated on data and its retention loses its capacity to perceive meaning and experiences a wasting of its spirit. A society that wishes to retain a clear sense of meaning and purposes needs robust data flushing processes, much like a metropolis needs a sewage system.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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