Forgetting In Order to Remember Better

by Greg Mackie

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A New York Times article describes a recent study that provides physical evidence for a major theory in cognitive studies: Blocking distracting memories—forgetting them—is a key part of the process of remembering new things that we want to remember. In other words, to quote A Course in Miracles, "You forget in order to remember better" (T-7.II.6:5).

The theory is not new. Michael Anderson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oregon, says, "We've argued for some time that forgetting is adaptive, that people actively inhibit some memories to facilitate mental focus." What the newest study shows is that this inhibiting process can actually be observed in the brain. In the study, a group of students were given a word-memorization test. They were first shown a list of 240 word pairs, then asked to memorize a set of three pairs from part of the list. Their dilemma was that the full list they had seen contained pairs very similar to the ones they were trying to memorize. Therefore, they had to push those distracting similar pairs out of their minds in order to remember the ones they were trying to remember.

The study showed that as the participants pushed out the distracting word pairs, activity decreased in the area of their brains that is responsible for recalling memories. Since scientists already knew that activity decreases in this area when a task becomes easier, the upshot is that forgetting the distracting pairs made remembering the desired pairs easier. The practical implication of this and other memory studies, Anderson says, is that an ideal memory improvement program "would include a course on how to impair your memory. Your head is full of a surprising number of things that you don't need to know."

A Course in Miracles is, among other things, a great course on how to impair your memory of things you don't need to know. Its word for this is "undoing": the process of forgetting the lessons of the ego so we can better remember the lessons Jesus is trying to teach us. In personal guidance to Helen, Jesus spoke of the importance of this undoing process, even saying that this should be the emphasis of psychological studies on learning:

You know very well that changing learning patterns requires undoing the old ones.…Most studies just measure learning decrement [loss] caused by new learning with the old. But the emphasis should be on how to minimize the effect of the old on the new. This is a much more helpful area to work in…. (Absence from Felicity, 1st ed., by Ken Wapnick, pp. 237-238)

We have a lot of old learning to undo; the Course speaks of our "ancient overlearning" that seems to "stand implacable before the Voice of truth" (T-31.I.5:4). Therefore, we are told that "the Holy Spirit calls you both to remember and to forget" (T-5.II.6:1). We need both to remember everything He's teaching us, and to forget everything we've taught ourselves. Later on, Jesus expands on this idea, drawing out the relationship between remembering and forgetting:

The Holy Spirit's teaching is a lesson in remembering. I said before that He teaches remembering and forgetting, but the forgetting is only to make the remembering consistent. You forget in order to remember better. (T-7.II.6:3-5)

This is exactly what studies like the one in the New York Times article are confirming: Forgetting helps us to remember better. It seems that Jesus was right when he said (in the 1960s) that the emphasis should be on minimizing the effect of old learning on new learning. Just think of what this means for our spiritual lives. This tool of forgetting to remember better can help us do far more than just memorize a few word pairs. With the help of the ideal memory improvement program called A Course in Miracles, we can forget the "ancient overlearning" that has seemingly condemned us to hell, in order to remember the "ancient new ideas" (T-28.I.7:9) that will restore our minds to our heavenly home with God.