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Are you learning, or forgetting?

What a weird question, right? But as it turns out, learning and forgetting are sometimes the same thing! And it’s important to understand if you want to learn to change your habits…

Scientists recently published a study done with mice where they uncovered the “pathways” of forgetting, and found that they are crucial in the process of learning. It seems that when they chemically disable a mouse’s ability to forget, then the mouse is unable to learn!

How is that?

Think about learning to ride a bike: the first times, your hands shake as you steer left and right. You shift your balance and wobble. And you do some silly things: when you feel like you’re about to fall, you tend to hit the brakes. But that’s the wrong thing to do! We all know that you have to keep moving to keep your balance on a bike.

But as you start and stop and stutter, you’re also doing a few things right, and you make some progress. As you get better, what changes?

You stop doing as many things wrong!

Your brain is actively forgetting to turn the wrong way, forgetting to move your balance the wrong way… your brain has to make itself forget to hit the brakes when you’re about to keel over because of moving too slowly.

Learning to do something right often means forgetting how to do it wrong.

Why is this important?

Think about how kids learn. Trial and error, right? We may think they remember what works, but as most parents realize, little kids seem to remember everything. The deep “learning” turns out to be more about forgetting the errors, and then the stuff that remains is what works. Neurologically speaking, that’s learning.

This happens to us as adults, too! Do you have a habit you want to break? Are you stuck in a rut? We often think that we want to learn to behave better, but maybe what we really want to do is forget our bad habit. If we don’t think, our brains reflexively do things out of habit, good or bad. To break that, we need to actively choose to do something different. We need to be aware of our behavior, and consciously make other choices.

This is a big part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – being cognitive (thinking and aware) of our own behavior. When we do this, we can catch ourselves before we fall into our bad habit, and we can consciously decide to something else – and then our brain can finally start to forget the reflexive responses we don’t like. But we’ll never start to forget our bad habits if we never try something else. As adults, we often lose the “trial” part, and then all that’s left is “error!”

The scientists in this study showed that, on the most basic level, “to learn new things, you have to forget things you’ve learned before.”

There are strategies to help yourself do this, and to avoid being disheartened along the way. Rome was not built in one day! We all need to be a little more willing to try other things… and to remember that when we try and it doesn’t work out, it’s not a failure, as long as we didn’t do the same wrong thing we always did before. Each time we successfully try something new, as long as we don’t repeat the same error as before, we’re giving our brains another chance to forget the bad habit. We’re on the road towards learning!


The mouse study we’re talking about:
Rapid erasure of hippocampal memory following inhibition of dentate gyrus granule cells, Nature Communications, 7, Article number: 10923,  

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