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Nikolai Axmacher about Forgetting (A02)

20. March 2019

Real forgetting is rarer than we think.

Nikolai Axmacher

Who doesn’t know this: You meet someone whose face you remember – but the name doesn’t come to your mind. A stupid situation, especially when the other person speaks to us with our name. The Press Department of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum reports on their news portal.

Oftentimes, we consider forgetting as annoying or a disease syndrome (as in Alzheimer’s dementia) and forget that we need it for our mental health, because unimportant or painful memories fade away through forgetting.

An example of unimportant memory: We have to remember where our car is. It helps if we don’t think about all the parking spaces it has ever been on, but only about the current one.

An example of painful memory: an emotionally stressful experience like the death of a family member. The pain never completely disappears, but if it remained as present as it was shortly after the event, we would no longer be able to lead a rational life.

In many cases, however, forgetting is only apparently based on the idea that a memory is really lost – in fact, it is often only suppressed and can reappear later.

In extreme cases, apparent forgetting can even lead to the suppressed memories expressing themselves in a pathological way, as with repression. True forgetting is therefore probably rarer than we think.