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It hits you while you’re in line at the grocery store. Or sitting at your desk. Or stuck in traffic. You cannot remember the name of your high school science teacher. How could this happen? You spent a year with this person, trudging through chemistry—and now, nothing. You’re losing it, you tell yourself. Maybe your memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Or maybe not. A new theory from researchers proposes that this type of forgetfulness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The theory, proposed by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, suggests that in all cases of forgetfulness, engram cells (where we store memories) undergo a switch from an accessible to an inaccessible state. It’s in this inaccessible state where we lose access to these memories, causing forgetfulness.
These researchers propose that many cases of forgetfulness are caused by environmental changes. It’s not that you’ve forgotten the name of your high school science teacher—it’s that you don’t necessarily need to remember it. This means that you’re not losing it, after all. Your brain is simply adapting for your current environment and expectations.
Why forgetfulness may be reversible
The researchers say that this type of forgetfulness can be classified as a form of learning, and as such, it can be reversible—changed through environmental needs and interactions, rather than a permanent loss.
However, they do note that this reversibility doesn’t apply to those with a memory-based disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease. These diseases negatively impact the accessibility of the engram cells, causing permanent memory loss and damage.
While still in its preliminary stages, the researchers call on future memory and forgetfulness-related research to address these new concepts. We may be able to say goodbye to those worries surrounding our inability to remember unimportant facts. The adaptable nature of engram cells calls into question commonly held notions about the negative aspects of forgetfulness.
So the next time you can’t recall the name of your high school science teacher or that restaurant on that one street near your last house, try not to worry. Those memories probably don’t serve your needs in a particular environment, so your brain temporarily let them go. (Let’s face it: Do you really need to remember the name of your high school science teacher in your current stage of life? Probably not.)
That’s your brain at work—learning and adapting.