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The art of forgetting

Want to blank out that screw-up at work today? Here's how.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2012 22:42 IST
Hindustan Times

If I were an uncharitable, envious crosspatch, I might observe that Paul McKenna's new book, I Can Make You Smarter, offers a hostage to fortune: if it worked, might it not eliminate the customer base for all future works by the hypnotist? But I'm neither uncharitable nor envious of his millions, naturally, so instead I'll observe that it's interesting, in a book on smartness, how much he makes of his promise to "supercharge your memory". For him, as for many self-help gurus, "becoming more intelligent" is intimately associated with "getting better at remembering stuff". This isn't exactly wrong, but it highlights a curious asymmetry that bedevils the way we think about brain skills. With all the focus on improving memory, are we in danger of forgetting the art of forgetting?

For decades, psychologists have understood our ability to forget isn't so much a failing as a vital complement to remembering - a mental decluttering without which we'd find it harder to assimilate new data. But deliberately trying to forget things, as a path to peace of mind, still has a bad reputation, thanks largely to Freud's ideas about repression. To an old-school psychoanalyst, there's never a good reason to push something from your mind: the very fact that you're trying shows it needs to be confronted, or it will manifest more damagingly elsewhere instead. Yet, there are surely countless everyday things we'd rather forget: moments of excruciating embarrassment, or stressful future events you can't do anything about right now.

The good news, as reported in Scientific American Mind, is that you can. Attempting not to think about something can notoriously have the opposite effect but research shows suppression gets better with practice and substituting a thought with another thought can work well, too. Intriguingly, those who are best at deliberate forgetting are those who are also best at remembering things. A sharp and healthy mind is one that can remember and forget. Distracting yourself is another technique that gets a bad rap but that can be similarly effective: want to forget your screw-up at work today? Cook a complex dinner tonight.

As a society, argues internet scholar Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, we're getting worse at forgetting, thanks to the web: Amazon, Google and Facebook remember everything you use them for, for ever. In his book Delete, he calls for legal efforts to change the default, so that unless you choose otherwise, your online activities will eventually slip into the memory hole. It'll never happen. But it's a welcome intervention in the polarised debate between advocates of privacy and publicness. Perhaps 'living in public' in the digital era would be less unsettling if we could trust that the web - like an optimally functioning human mind, rather than one with a disorder such as Price's - might eventually also forget.


First Published: Jan 22, 2012 22:39 IST