Your Brain Wants to Forget

Why are we so hellbent on remembering?

Thoughts can be chaotic, erratic, and ultimately irrational. These moments can remove you from your current experience. I have spoken before about the power of thoughts in themself. To summarize, your thoughts influence your beliefs which ultimately influence your actions. This can be scary because sometimes your mind moves fast like a storm. It’s as if some intangible force has taken reign of your conscious mind leaving you stranded in a sea of randomicity. But what exactly is behind a thought?

First, let’s explore the brain. The average human adult brain is composed of billions of neurons. These neurons form connections with other neurons in what’s called a neural pathway. When we learn something new, these neural pathways take form. When we have a thought, a specific pathway activates.

Not wishing to detail the complete biological mechanism behind this, it is essential to understand that the more often a neural pathway is activated, the stronger the connections of that pathway become. These stronger connections are what I like to term our “default setting.” 

Our default setting characterizes our preferences, attitudes about life, and emotions. It encompasses our first few thoughts each morning, our reaction to a setback or bad news, or how we cope with daily stress. 

By design (socialization with our society), humans tend to focus on negative experiences. Negative experiences bring feelings like regret, doubt, shame, anger, and fear. We fixate on these negative experiences. Thus, summarizes the issue of negative/limiting thought patterns. The more you repeat some belief to yourself, the stronger that belief becomes.

You do not have to live with a negative or limiting mindset. So how can you change your mindset for the better?

First, you will have to “weaken” the physical neural connections in your brain. Such a concept seems impossible; how can one possibly go against biological function? Well, the good news is that you certainly can and do so every day of your life.

In the novel, Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering, Scott Smalls explores the process of forgetting. He speaks of the process of brain plasticity in which the brain can reorganize its structure differently from its original order. Even more compelling, he delves into how we all have a “forgetting toolbox.” This toolbox works antagonistically to the process of memory formation. He states, “the active process of spine shrinkage occurs when the input is desynchronized in time, or when the neuron receives new inputs that override earlier ones.”

Essentially, forgetting is something almost every human does at every single moment of their life. Forgetting allows us to live and experience the world in whole and not in separate or dissimilar parts. 

Because something so natural occurs to help us live peaceful and calm lives, how can you supplement this natural process?

Active thinking. Active thinking or mindfulness is a skill, and mindfulness embodies present awareness.

Instead of focusing on unpleasant things, you can choose to focus on pleasant life experiences. It is such a simple yet challenging concept to replicate. Even I struggle with it.

However… 

Think of any other of your skills. It didn’t develop instantly. In fact, you had to work consistently to develop them over time. To become skillful in something takes practice. Whatever negative beliefs you wish to lose will take dedication and time. It will not happen overnight. You will have to commit to the process every day but knowing these facts makes the process easier. Understanding this simple concept explains why it can be challenging to shift your mindset for the better. But alas, your brain wants to help you in this shift of focus.

Over time, the once strong negative neural pathways will weaken, and the neural pathways designated with positive experiences and thinking will dominate. This does not mean you will be happy at all times, yet you will bounce back from setbacks quicker.

Because you have affirmed a positive mindset, any setbacks or obstacles you stumble upon will become something akin to background noise. Your mind will only really focus on what you affirm to be true, which is all that’s important.