Can forgetting help you learn? Of course! Imagine trying to rummage through all the possibilities, ever, for where you left your keys yesterday morning when you were running late for work. Having lived in one place for the past several years, you discount, without thinking, every possible answer that includes prior residences.
The flexible brain has not evolved for perfect recall, but for recalling relevant information. Moreover, we don't strictly remember facts of the matter, but the meaning derived from those facts - especially, and sadly, if the facts of the matter are associated with a bad experience.
Dwelling excessively on past failure is a learning inhibitor, and it has often been said that elite athletes must have a short memory. Perhaps one factor in athletic achievement is a capacity for learning from, and then forgetting, the failure itself.
Perhaps the same is true of innovators. Because our metaphorical minds relate everything in a terms of another thing, forgetting can open us to new ideas, experiences or emotions.
In his latest Guardian column, Oliver Burkeman, who will speak at IdeaFestival 2013, links to a new tongue-in-cheek dictionary, the "Emotionary," that seeks to assign words to unnamed emotions. Naming these emotions may seem like a fun if pointless exercise, but as Burkeman suggests the process of naming serves an important and practical purpose in psychiatry since it may determine whether a patient's sad experiences are part living, or if they stray into rather more serious territory and medication is recommended.
The sheer variety of emotion is staggering.
Having been involved for several years now in the growth of the IdeaFestival, I'm quite familiar with the feeling of minding my own business, contentedly listening to a speaker discuss her experiences or breakthrough when BAM!, a new thought leaps into my head because I was unknowingly relating the discussion to that vague notion orbiting recently on the periphery of my own thinking. I've been curioustimized, or experienced the state of having had my curiosity optimized by forgetting for a few moments what it is I thought I knew.
Give thanks that our recall isn't perfect.