The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

This neuroscientist wants you to embrace your forgetfulness

If you've ever forgotten where you parked the car or the name of someone you've just met, you know that it makes you question whether you're losing your mind. But bestselling author Lisa Genova says you're not. Her new book, Remember, explores the science of memory and the art of forgetting.

Lisa Genova explores the science of memory and the art of forgetting in her latest book, Remember

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Lisa Genova explores the science of memory and the art of forgetting in her latest book Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. (Greg Mentzer, Harmony Books)

Have you ever forgotten where you parked your car, or why you entered a specific room?

If you have, you might be familiar with the vaguely unsettling feeling that you're losing your mind, or that you're experiencing early signs of Alzheimer's disease.

But according to neuroscientist and bestselling author Lisa Genova, those memory slips are nothing to be worried about.

Genova is the author of Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting. She says we tend to "villainize" forgetting, but in reality, it's a normal part of how our brain functions.

"We do need to forget the things that are habitual, inconsequential, routine," she told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay, in order to bring the things that matter to the foreground.

Genova spoke to Chattopadhyay about how our brains create and alter memories, and why we forget.

Here is part of their conversation.

We have all had those kinds of moments that your readers confess, [like] forgetting where we put the keys…. It is so common … so why is it so scary when we start to feel like we're losing our memories?

I think because memory is so essential and pervasive for pretty much everything we do. We need memory to be able to brush our teeth. We need memory to know the people in our lives. We need memory to get on the Zoom calls. 

But memory is also attached to our identity. It gives us a sense of who we've been and who we are. So if we start to feel like we're losing a grip on that — and then maybe you've had a loved one who had Alzheimer's and you've witnessed the devastation of a person becoming detached from all the memories, all the personal history. Then to imagine that slippery slope is justifiably terrifying.

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I suppose what I'm hearing from you is that memory is just being human, right? It's essential to the experience of being human…. You're also saying it's imperfect, and I suppose that's the part of it that is hard for most of us to accept.

I think our culture really reveres memory and intellect almost to a fault. Our human memory is not perfect, and I think once we understand these imperfections, we can be a little more forgiving and gentler with ourselves when we do walk into the living room and don't know why we went in there, or when we can't find our glasses or our phones. 

So how do our brains actually make memories?

Your memory is not a video camera recording a constant stream of every sight and sound and smell and taste and emotion you're exposed to. You actually can only remember what you pay attention to. 

So, if you think about when you're driving your car, how many of you out there have driven for maybe a stretch of 10 miles or 10 minutes and you suddenly realize, "I have no memory of anything that I've driven past?"

You can't remember something if you don't pay attention to it…. And so what do we pay attention to? We pay attention to things that are new, surprising, emotional, meaningful. So those are the kinds of moments and experiences and information that capture our attention. 

Genova's book explores the science of memory and the art of forgetting. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Then, that information can go to a place in your brain called the hippocampus … the part of your brain that connects all of the different neurons that were activated by what you learned or experienced. 

What else helps us remember something? When we repeat it. So if we reminisce, if we rehearse something, if we practise something. So if you're learning to play piano or golf or tennis, memories for how to do things … they live in your brain. Your brain stores the choreography that then tells your muscles what to do.

The more you talk about [it] and repeat [it] ... the more you go over those neural circuits and repeat the information, the stronger the memory will be. 

And then again, if it's emotional, if it's meaningful, if it's new. So this is often why we remember vacations. Because it's not the same old, same old…. 

We also know that every other memory changes over time. So what makes that happen?

So, it's not every memory. We have different kinds of memories. So there's the memory for the stuff you know. Memory for all of the information and the facts you've learned, sort of the Wikipedia of your brain. That stuff is really stable over time. 

Likewise with the how-to memories, your muscle memories. This is sort of why the saying of "it's just like riding a bike" applies. If you learn how to do something, that choreography is stable throughout your lifetime. 

Your memories for what happened … are called your episodic memories, and this is for all the stuff that's happened in your life that you remember. 

It turns out that every time you recall an episodic memory, it's vulnerable to editing. So if I recall something that happened 30 years ago, and I'm a different person now and I've learned some things and I could reinterpret it, I might tell it a little differently. Or my brother's here and he remembered something slightly different … I could put that in. 

Let's not judge and shame ourselves and panic and be so fearful if we forget things because forgetting is a normal part of being human.- Lisa Genova

We very readily and not necessarily consciously add, subtract, change a little bit, and then we store this 2.0 version of the memory and we write over the original. It's like hitting save in Microsoft Word. 

You could imagine that over time it could drift and deviate further and further away from what you actually encoded in the first place. 

You write: "Forgetting can also be artful, active, deliberate, motivated, targeted and desirable. In other words, forgetting is not always so bad." So let's talk about that art.

We tend to villainize forgetting. I think we think of forgetting as like there's this war going on in your brain between the good guy, which is memory, and the bad guy, which is forgetting, and that's not how it works. 

We do need to forget the things that are habitual, inconsequential, routine. We want the things that matter to exist in the foreground and the stuff that doesn't matter to go into the background. 

So, it's helpful for your brain to get rid of information when you know you don't need it anymore. So we get rid of stuff all the time.

You write that we can be 100 per cent sure of a memory and also 100 per cent wrong. And you say that our memories are both everything and nothing. What do you hope [readers] will take from that?

I think that there's this interesting duality where memory is so important and essential and amazing. I get it. It's like, again, if you've witnessed Alzheimer's in a loved one, you know how essential memory is to our experience of being human. 

And yet I also know many people with Alzheimer's, and I know that our ability to matter, our ability to love and be loved, is not taken by Alzheimer's and does not rely on memory. So it's this interesting duality of memory [being] amazing and you can continue to learn anything your whole life. But memory, again, will also forget the simplest things.

Our memory is both the master of it all and it's a bit of a dunce. So I think if we can hold both of those — it's important enough to take care of it and be grateful for it and want to protect it, and it's also not perfect. So let's not judge and shame ourselves and panic and be so fearful if we forget things, because forgetting is a normal part of being human.


Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Interview produced by Jessica Linzey. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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