The Frontal Cortex

The Virtue of Forgetting

The headline says it all: “Forgetting May Be Part of the Process of Remembering”:

The more efficiently that study participants were tuning out irrelevant words during a word-memorization test, the sharper the drop in activity in areas of their brains involved in recollection. Accurate remembering became easier, in terms of the energy required.

This is an idea that Jorge Luis Borges would have understood. In his classic short story, Funes the Memorious, Borges invented a character (Ireneo Funes) whose “perception and memory are infallible…the present to him was almost intolerable in its richness and sharpness.” But this perfect memory is a curse: Funes is driven mad by his infinite recollections. He invents a nonsensical language where every object in the universe correlates to his private sign: “He then applied this absurd principle to numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins…In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark, the last in the series were very complicated…I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers…” For Funes though, his “language” was the only way he could encode reality. Unable to forget anything, Funes needed a vocabulary as vast as life itself: “Funes remembered not only every leaf of every tree of every wood, but also every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort. To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence…Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.”

The moral of Borges’ short story is that forgetting is a crucial part of remembering. It lets us make efficient use of our mental hard drive. We are constantly updating our remembrances in terms of what we know now, trying to forget the memories that we no longer need.

In related news, I’ve always wondered if Borges was aware of A.R. Luria’s famous patient, D.C. Shereshevskii. Like Funes, D.C. was incapable of forgetting anything. For example, D.C. would be bound by his brain to memorize the entire Divine Comedy of Dante after a single reading. Audiences would scream out random numbers 100 digits long and he would effortlessly recount them. The only requirement of this man’s insatiable memory was that he be given 3 or 4 seconds to visualize each item during the learning process. These images came to D.C. automatically.

Eventually, D.C.’s memory overwhelmed him. He struggled with mental tasks normal people find easy. When he read a novel, he would instantly memorize every word by heart, but miss the entire plot. Metaphors and poetry – though they clung to his brain like Velcro – were incomprehensible. He couldn’t even use the phone because he found it hard to recognize a person’s voice “when it changes its intonation…and it does that 20 or 30 times a day.”


  1. #1 Ted
    June 7, 2007

    Great tying together of threads in this post! Made me think of how our propensity to remember or forget plays such a strong role in forging what we would call “character,” and one can see this not only on an individual level, but on a collective one as well. I think of the character of two cities: New York, constantly reinventing, knocking down and obliterating all sign of what existed before and building anew vs. Berlin, which preserves its history devoutly. Just standing in Potsdamer Platz you can turn around and see four centuries of architecture without moving a step: the shiny, new Sony center, a palace from the 18th century, what looks like an eastern bloc bureaucratic building of some sort, and a chunk of the wall!
    Your post also made me think of a novel “Spilling Clarence” by Anne Ursu, that came out a couple of years ago. In it, the inhabitants of a town are changed when a chemical released accidentally compels them to remember everything.

  2. #2 Pedro Morgado
    June 7, 2007

    Nice post. I’ll link in my personal blog.

  3. #3 Chris
    June 8, 2007

    Borges’ wouldn’t have had this available to him, but there is a wonderful case study of a man who bears a striking resemblance to his character in Funes the Memorious that is a must read for anyone interested in memory or cognition more generally: Luria’s Mind of a Mnemonist.