Do you ever find yourself reminiscing with friends about past experiences, only for them to remember it far more specifically than you? Ever play a trivia game at a bar or restaurant and wonder how other people there know all these answers? Do you know someone who can tell you every team that has won the Super Bowl since its inception, while you struggle to recall who won it just six months ago? (It was the Patriots, again, ugh.)

Good news: You're probably more intelligent than all of them.


Recent research suggests that forgetting trivial information allows your brain to retain more useful, general information to help you be a better decision-maker.

"The point of memory is to make you an intelligent person who can make decisions given the circumstances, and an important aspect in helping you do that is being able to forget some information," said Blake Richards, one of two researchers at the University of Toronto behind the new study.

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"It's important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that's going to help make decisions in the real world," Richards added.

Of course, this probably won't amount to a hill a beans if you use it as an excuse for forgetting your significant other's birthday or your anniversary, but it will certainly make you feel better the next time you come in last place on trivia night at Oscar's Alehouse or the Greene Turtle.

This isn't the first time such studies have been done on forgetfulness and what's happening in the brain as it relates to memory. In a 2007, University of Stanford researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure adults' brain activity after giving them a simple memory test by giving them three pairs of words to memorize: attic dust, attic junk and movie reel. They were then given a second opportunity to study "attic dust," but not the other two.

What they discovered is people were able to more easily remember the unrelated "movie reel" pairing than the "attic junk" pairing. The conclusion was that the brain, in an effort to conserve space for more important stuff, gets rid of memories that are similar to others. The fMRI data produced during this study showed their brains were highly active in the area known for handling conflicting memories, but also in the region for memory suppression.

This is why it is, for example, when you attend an event annually for a number of years — the Maryland Wine Festival for example — you might conflate memories from multiple years into one, and have trouble remembering exactly which time that particular memory occurred. (Or, it could just be the wine.)

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A better example perhaps, and one that I certainly struggle with, is computer passwords. Experts on computer security will tell you to make passwords complicated and not to use the same ones on multiple accounts. For example, your Facebook login probably shouldn't be the same as your online banking password.

Depending on the frequency with which you use them and how often you are required to change them, you may struggle to remember them right away. What always gets me though, and this is a perfect example of this phenomenon, is when your new password has to be different from your previous five. By the time I've remembered my new one, I've pushed the previous one — and definitively the four even older ones — from my memory banks.

What we can really learn from this research, though, might have to do with, well, learning. Many students and people in general rely on rote memorization. It's one of the pitfalls of standardized testing: Students memorize answers to questions like they are training for trivia games rather than gaining a deeper understanding of how the key concepts work so that they may apply them beyond passing a test. It's one of the reasons education standards have changed to teach students conceptually how to come up with answers — Common Core math with word problems and requiring students show their work rather than simply remembering times tables, for example.

So just remember: Forgetting can be frustrating, but can also be a good thing.

Now … where did I put my keys?

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.