Selective forgetting for a sharper mind

I came across the concept of deleting unwanted memories in a book about the “Modern Prophet” Edgar Cayce called “Edgar Cayce, Mysteries of the Mind” by Henry Reed (1)

At a certain age, human beings start to equate the loss of memory with getting older and perhaps even with degradation of the brain function. When a person can’t remember where they put their car keys or cell phone they often blame it on the ageing brain.

So what is selective forgetting? In a society obsessed with recording memories, not just through their natural brain functions but through devices such as cameras and cell phones and through media like social networks and device software, why would anyone entertain the idea of forgetting their memories deliberately unless they were traumatic?

Henry Reed asked this very question when he noted that “learning to forget can perhaps be as useful as learning to remember.” He went on to refer to the great detective Sherlock Holmes who, when given some trivial information by his sidekick Dr Watson, promptly and deliberately chose to forget it.  He went on to say that “Sherlock Holmes knew that the controlled use of the mind was the key to his success”.

Trying to forget something can sometimes be more difficult than remembering.

What are the benefits of forgetting memories? The main one according to Mr Holmes was that by freeing his mind of trivial memories, he was able to concentrate on the more important ones.

The concept of “lifelogging” has its bizarre roots in the obsessive act of collecting digital memories. I am not suggesting that it’s a sign of a dysfunctional personality when I use the term “obsessive” but using devices to record every action in a day over a given period may seem a tad bit unconventional.

In “Smarter Than You Think” by Clive Thompson, he tackles the issue purely from the angle of technology. (2)

When he interviewed lifelogger Gordon Bell, Bell noted that the best part about lifelogging was that it made him feel “cleaner, lighter”. By relieving himself of the burden of using his brain to remember everything he saw and heard in a given day, he argued that he was free of the anxiety of committing something to memory. Added to this, he went on to say that by subcontracting this function to a device, it gave him greater mental peace. Bell stated that “knowing that there’s a permanent backup of almost everything he sees, or hears allows him to live his life more in the moment, paying closer attention to what he is doing”.

However, what Clive Thompson also observed during his research into the topic was that despite the immaculate and detailed off board memory, it was curiously harder to search for information. The human brain was much more efficient at memory associations than the “brute force” searches conducted by machines. As he interviewed other lifeloggers they pointed out similar problems. Saving data was easy but finding it could be hard.

The real benefit of artificial memory according to Thompson is not as a passive storage device but as a resource which is able to activate and remember important things for us and “unremember” less important information.

By using the “pattern-finding” nature of computers, they could be used to reconfigure our hard drive memories into a more efficient and concise version. We would not remember the trivial trips to the photocopier or picking up a teabag from the counter after it was left there carelessly by one of our children. Instead, we would recall important events in text as well as audiovisual detail at the touch of a button.

Until this technology becomes mainstream, most of us will continue to streamline our natural brains manually, hopefully freeing up some space for more important memories.

As a child, Edgar Cayce could sleep on a textbook and awaken with a photographic memory of its content without ever once having opened the book. Cayce demonstrated the infinite capacity of the human mind through many of his unique talents. He was able to diagnose illness without being in geographical proximity to a person; recall detailed past lives of strangers he had never met and more dangerously, influence the thoughts of a person which he only demonstrated once due to the seriousness of this invasive process.

 Cayce did most of his readings through a self-induced hypnotic sleep and did not remember any of the content of his readings when awake.  In contrast he was also able to alter his state of consciousness and recall events and experiences not just of individuals but about historical places dating back thousands of years. Cayce believed that we all have the ability to awaken the powers of the mind and use them for our own benefit as well as for the benefit of our fellow humans.

I personally would like to forget a number of things ranging from embarrassing childhood moments to poor adult recollections of what it felt like to be young and unencumbered by financial commitments so that like Gordon Bell, I could be “free to live in the moment”.


1. Henry Reed; Edgar Cayce On Mysteries of the Mind; Association of Research and Enlightenment, Inc; 1989

2. Clive Thompson; Smarter Than You Think; William Collins; 2013