Emerging Technologies

How forgetting information could free up the brain for new learning

Christian Jarrett
Cognitive Neuroscientist, British Psychological Society\'s Research Digest Blog.
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This post first appeared on the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog.

A few years ago, researchers demonstrated that people had poorer memory for information that they were told had been saved to a computer. Technophobes jumped on the finding. “Imagine that in the future people become so used to external access for any form of reference that they have not internalized any facts at all,” wrote Susan Greenfield.

Of course there are many flaws to this logic, not least that the old fashioned act of writing information down can also lead to increased forgetting. A new study has focused on another important point: forgetting information that we know is externally available could be advantageous – allowing us to free up cognitive resources to better learn new information.

Benjamin Storm and Sean Stone tested this possibility across three studies involving dozens of undergrads. The format was similar throughout. The students started by studying a list of ten words in one computer file, which they would be tested on later. Then they moved onto a second file with a new list of words to study. There was a 20-second delay then they were tested on this second list.

The critical finding is that the students performed better at remembering this second list if they were earlier given the chance to save the first list to computer. It’s as if knowing the first list was stored on computer prompted them to deliberately forget it, so that they could focus all their mental resources on the second list.

Further details back up this interpretation. When the computer saving process was made unreliable – files kept getting lost – the saving process no longer boosted the students’ performance on the second list. Also, when the first list was made up of just two words, meaning it placed little strain on memory, the act of saving it to computer no longer made a difference to memory for the second list.

Why else might saving information to computer help benefit new learning? Another intriguing suggestion made by the researchers is that the act of saving could provide the basis for an “event boundary” in memory, helping avoid confusion between the first and second lists. They further speculate that saving to computer likely doesn’t just aid the learning of further information, but could also free up mental resources that underlie thinking and problem solving.

The researchers conclude with a Sherlock Holmes quote that captures the concept of adaptive forgetting: “… a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

Storm, B., & Stone, S. (2014). Saving-Enhanced Memory: The Benefits of Saving on the Learning and Remembering of New Information Psychological Science, 26 (2), 182-188 DOI:10.1177/0956797614559285

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, is editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Image: A man types on a computer keyboard. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files.

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Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesEducation and SkillsFourth Industrial RevolutionIndustries in Depth
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