Science Watch: Remember to Forget; 'Remembering Too Much Is Known to Contribute to Mental Illnesses Such as Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even in Healthy People, Too Good a Memory Can Generate Misery'
Byline: JOHN VON RADOWITZ
Everyone has heard of the absent-minded professor - the scatterbrained genius with a memory like a sieve.
It may seem like a strange paradox. Good memory is associated with intelligence, yet some of the brightest and most creative people appear to be incredibly vague.
Being absent-minded and creatively intelligent is not a contradiction for one group of scientists investigating memory, however.
Nor is the opposite - the association between a snapshot mnemonic memory and being somewhat dull, rigid, and lacking in ideas.
New research is showing that forgetfulness can actually benefit the intellect. This makes logical sense in a way since, if every tiny event was remembered in perfect detail, the brain would soon be swamped.
Forgetting things allows the brain room to breathe.
For decades scientists have spent considerable time, effort and money trying to find ways of improving the memory. This has been driven to no small extent by the potential rewards to be reaped by anyone producing a memory-enhancing pill.
But a small band of scientists is now turning the quest on its head and investigating not how memories form in the brain, but how and why they vanish after days, months or years.
In the process they have discovered that memory improvement is the last thing some people want. For certain individuals, clearing the brain of unwanted memories would come as a blessed relief.
Remembering too much is known to contribute to mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even in healthy people, too good a memory can generate misery.
A perfect example of the latter case is provided by Solomon Shereshevski, the world's most celebrated mnemonist.
He could memorise strings of dozens of numbers just by looking at them on a blackboard, conjuring them back with stunning accuracy months or years later and reciting them backwards or forwards.
But Shereshevski's memory was also his curse. He remembered things by drawing pictures in his mind, and was unable to think abstract thoughts. He got muddled when a word had two meanings or an object had two names. His mental capacity never extended beyond that of an adolescent, and he could barely read.
Unable to hold down a job, he was forced to earn a living as a performance artiste, a memory freak. …