Fear of memory neurologic disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease can become an obsession with each little momentary bit of forgetting, a major mistake. As research continues to explore the mysteries of our brains, it is uncovering previously unknown pathways to maintaining normal mental health; forgetting is now on their radar.
Just as a computer (modeled on our neural networks) needs to defrag to get rid of junk files and restore order to the computer’s hard drive, our brain goes through a similar process. The primary work appears to be accomplished at night during sleep, and there are new-found brain organizers dedicated to that task.
In fact, scientists are discovering new bits of the brain and the body they never knew existed before. One, of course, was the brain’s “hidden” plumbing system that gets rid of the garbage as we sleep, memory formation, immune system related to obesity, t-cells that target cancer, a “hidden” muscle in the jaw, and more to come. Special cells in the brain that facilitate learning networks might also clear out unused or unstable networks. No one knows for sure.
In fact, recent research has indicated these same cells that promote learning work in reverse and clear our brain. These microglia cells are now viewed as the “brain’s sculptors” that are vigilant and working constantly.
But their pruning activity may go awry, as seen in schizophrenia and autism. What signals them to go either way? There may be special protective materials that are deficient in some brains. Perhaps abnormal forgetting, as in Alzheimer’s, may result from wayward microglia in brains where the protective brain cell aspects are absent.
We have begun to come to terms with the fact that there is much more to be discovered than we thought. As I’ve always believed, the final frontier isn’t outer space; it’s the space between our ears.
Now we are learning that forgetting is as important as memory formation in the first place. It is a process of forward and backward that keeps the scales in balance; we form memories, and we forget memories. It’s normal, and we need to relax a bit once we experience those little bits of absent-mindedness.
Accepting these new ideas about the normalcy of forgetting and the work of those tiny multi-function brain organisms flies in the face of much of what we’ve learned about remembering and forgetting in the past.
For example, if it is normal to “forget,” then what about the idea of never forgetting. This idea, which we learn in basic psychology courses, states that we can re-learn anything we’ve learned in the past because it’s never forgotten. But does this mean bits of memory are left even after the work of “forgetting” has taken place?
Well, where were those microglia? Were they somehow deficient in their job on specific types of memory and learning? Or does the hypothesis need more tweaking to make room for yet more hypotheses relative to not forgetting where there are exceptions? Where does reintegration fit in?
The entire idea is contrary to the notion of unconscious conflict that has always proposed that we retrieve painful or unacceptable memories if we have the right therapist and enough time. If forgetting is normal, wouldn’t it be counterproductive to force someone to attempt to engage in remembering things that can’t be remembered? Doesn’t that sound barbaric to you? And, of course, you pay for all of this required remembering. Are we then getting into the arena of false memories?
If you repress painful memories, what role do the microglia play in that process? Is there a mechanism by which constantly recalling a painful memory or guilty action constructs such a robust memory that it cannot be entirely erased? Wouldn’t that suggest an inability to eliminate them because of the constant recall of these memories that is reinforcing?
Or do these organisms have a memory storage center where they permit certain memories or bits of memory to live on until called forth? Forgetting may truly mean partial forgetting. In that case, therapy would be in the service of working the memory jigsaw puzzle and putting it together again — if it truly existed in the first place.
In essence, there are still many hypotheses regarding normal forgetting, intentional forgetting, and forgetting related to brain disorders. The new pathways that are being suggested are promising and offer hope for anyone who thinks all forgetting presages the development of terminal neurologic disorders; it does not. We forget because we are built to forget. It is part of our DNA, and it enables survival under extraordinary circumstances and facilitates new learning.
Of course, one mystery remains unsolved; why do those with dementia still clearly recall activities from long age in their lives while incapable of producing new memories? What makes those very old memories resistant to expungement?