Thought Leadership

Forgetting stuff

By Colin Walls

Absent mindedness seems to be on the increase. At least, that is how it seems among my friends and acquaintances. Of course, that is because I am getting older and so, on average, are the people that I know. How often do I go upstairs for some purpose and, when I arrive [only slightly breathless], find that I have no idea what that purpose was? I open a Web browser to look something up, get slightly distracted [I am very easily distracted!] and cannot recall what information I was originally after.

Short term memory issues are regarded as just part of growing older, but it is not as simple as that …

People’s ability to store information away [and recall it] varies drastically, as does their memory capacity. On the surface, it appears that we randomly remember stuff, whereas other things are not committed to memory. But it is not random. I, for example, have no memory for numbers, but I never forget a face. Some circumstances, like times of strong emotion, encourage the laying down of memories, as I wrote about a while back.

As I have always had difficulty remembering facts, during my education [and since] I concentrated on understanding how/where to find information instead of storing it in my brain. I mooted recently that the Internet is actually the latest step in the evolution of the human brain, as, in effect, it allows us to all share our knowledge. New technology, like Google Glass means that the information can be retrieved very quickly and easily.

Wearable computing, like Google Glass, opens up another possibility: it can help us store more memories by recording everything that we see and hear. A bit more technology and the other three senses could be accommodated – only a matter of time. The problem will be how to sift through all this data. This is analogous to the digital photography problem. I have about 30,000 photos on my computer and, even using an organization scheme and suitable software, it can be tough finding the image that I want. What I should really do is delete more pictures than I do …

And this is actually the crux of the issue. Forgetting is really a useful skill. If we remembered everything, we would go mad trying to sift out the information that we need. It has been suggested that the ability to forget, in a rational way, is one of the most powerful capabilities of the human brain. I would, therefore, suggest that we should all concentrate on learning to forget and not let our minds get cluttered with useless information. A better use of brain power is to understand concepts, as that is the skill than enable us to really use information. So, do not remember; think!

Leave a Reply

This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at