Can you control what you remember and what you forget?
According to some research, the answer is yes — but it takes practice to master this skill.
How does it work?
When it comes to the human brain, some memories are more important than others. When we remember things or perform tasks, the cells in our brain make connections. The more often a connection is used, the stronger it gets. So whether you’re performing a physical task (typing, dancing, driving) or using a mental skill (doing math or speaking Spanish), by asking your brain to do something repeatedly, you are telling your brain that that memory is important. And the brain only keeps what’s important.
How does your brain know what to keep and what to get rid of?
Just as learning revolves around building connections, unlearning revolves around breaking them.
Your brain has two kinds of memory cells:
- Glial cells speed up signals between cells, and
- Microglial cells trim away the connections you don’t need.
What gets kept and what gets cut all comes down to use. Your brain prioritizes what you use and gets rid of whatever you don’t. (This is why I know all the words to “Rocky Top” but only 8 words of high school French.) The key to using your brain’s delete button is learning how to control what gets marked for destruction.
1. Give your brain time to declutter.
Think about how your brain works first thing in the morning, and then think about how it works at 5 p.m. At the end of the day, your brain may feel “too full” of information to hold any more, and in a way, it is. Your brain needs time to declutter, which happens while we sleep.
Fact: Brain cells shrink by up to 60% when we sleep, and that’s when microglial cells “take out the trash” in the form of old memories
2. Be mindful of what you think about or spend time doing.
This is the crucial step in being able to “delete” unwanted memories. The more time you spend thinking about something, the more important your brain will think it is. So just as, “Use it, don’t lose it” applies to remembering things, you might apply this to forgetting them: “If you want to lose it, you can’t use it.”
Here are 3 tips to be mindful of your thinking habits:
To stop your brain from thinking about something, you need to disrupt your thoughts. Let’s say you saw a horror movie and you keep replaying one scene in your head. Annoyingly and ironically, the more you do that, the more your brain will want to do that, so you have to break the cycle. Focus on something else: Try to juggle, walk the dog, or call a friend. Do whatever it takes to stop your brain from firing those connections and eventually they’ll fade away.
If you find yourself preoccupied with something you can act on or solve — a chore to do, a misunderstanding to clear up — address it. Thinking about the problem is only going to make you more likely to think about it. Stop thinking and just do.
Try mindfulness. Clearing your mind of things you’re worried about or frustrated by can help you reset and declutter your mind. Find 5 simple ways to practice mindfulness here.