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Memory, Forgetfulness and Intelligence

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Ronaldo Mota – member of the board of the Brazilian Academy of Education, writes about new technologies in contemporary education and innovative educational methodologies

It is quite common to associate intelligence with having excellent memory. That is, the more details we know and the longer we remember from past events, in general, we usually find it to be for the better. However, recent advances in science compel us to at least rethink such associations.

Paul Frankland and Blake Richards, researchers at the University of Toronto, point out in a recent article in Neuron magazine (vol. 94, 6, page 1071, 2017) the importance of knowing how to forget to be as relevant, they say, as how to remember. In fact, they evidence that it is the interaction between memory and forgetfulness that provides the right conditions for intelligent decision making.

Memory studies tend to be focused on the cellular mechanisms involved in stocking information, a phenomenon known as persistence. There is another process, equally important and distinct, responsible for memory loss, called transience. The works of Frankland and Richards show that the production of new neurons in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus is associated with the promotion of forgetting. As this production is most active in children, it may help to explain why adults generally have difficulty remembering events occurring before they were about four years old.

Based on the principles of machine learning and computational neuroscience, there is an interesting parallel between the neurobiological and computational mechanisms. Memory allows the transmission of information over time. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, increases flexibility as it reduces the influence of outdated or unnecessary information in the process of decision-making or learning consolidation. Knowing to forget avoids over-dimensioning specific events in the sending and receiving of data and thus we can generalize, understand contexts, make adaptations and develop syntheses, from past experiences.

There are interesting reports of patients with amazing abilities to memorize all the details and demonstrate, on the other hand, great difficulties in real life, either in making decisions, adapting to new situations or even learning. Deprived of the capacity to forget, synthesizing becomes fragile and the understanding of contexts is practically impeded by the profusion of details that are not hierarchical in their respective relevance.

Educationally, learning performance is associated with the learner’s ability to reconcile these two dynamics, memory and forgetfulness while learning to free up spaces to learn more and better. This strategy, combining persistence/transience, enables learners to learn continuously throughout life.

In the process of teaching specific contents, learning demands to be accompanied by an increase in the student’s level of awareness about how he/she learns. Amplifying the perception about ones own learning process is the educational trail that allows for the proper and conscious selection of what to hold and what to dispense.

From the consecutive syntheses of the lived realities or the contents taught, the ability to make decisions and to succeed in missions and projects is developed. In this sense, education, paraphrasing Albert Einstein, is what remains when we forget what we have been taught.



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Master of Arts in Political Science, California State University Northridge. Twenty five years experience in executive functions at Brazilian colleges and universities. Writer, lecturer. and consultant is, presently, educational editor for Brazil Monitor