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Why it’s important that we forget things

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The new guy at the office just told you his name five minutes ago. If you put those keys here yesterday, why aren’t they here today? You were in there browsing just last week so where did that old bookshop go? Sometimes the brain’s ability to hurl vital information out with the trash can be infuriating to say the least.  

But it is a practical necessity for data to be filtered, filed and discarded. Without the ability to prioritize the torrent of new messages from everyday life, the brain would be overwhelmed. Who needs the ability to recall their dentist’s phone number when they’re figuring out if it’s safe to turn right on red? What gets stored and what doesn’t is a complicated business.

A study at the University of Basel outlines the role a protein called musashi (or msi-1) has in the forgetting “process.” As we learn, our synapses (the network in the brain that helps form and maintain memories) are stimulated and connections are made. The musashi protein slows down the process by which the brain stabilizes the synapses. It is unstable synaptic connections that lead to forgetfulness.

Forgetting, then, is not just an abstract degradation of information in the brain but a necessary psychological process controlled by physical means. The researchers also identified another protein, adducin, that helps bolster the synapses and so potentially boosts memory.

In the long run, learning more about the balance between remembering and forgetting might help us understand some cognitive disorders of the brain. "An imbalance [in] these mechanisms,” the researchers say, “may result in altered memory function that could play a role in memory-related disorders.” That has to be good news for everyone.

Just try to remember where you heard it first.

 

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