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Evidently, Sherlock Holmes was onto something. Today's Wall Street Journal (that other journal) column "The Informed Reader" had a writeup of a feature in November's National Geographic: Remember This: Forgetting Can Be Beneficial (subscription may be required):
The brain's habit of remembering past traumas in vivid detail, while, say, losing track of where one put the car keys, actually serves people well. "If we remembered everything," writes journalist Joshua Foer, "we'd be drowning in irrelevant information."

In the short story "Funes the Memorious," Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges described how a character's inability to forget anything meant he couldn't prioritize the events of his life or make generalizations. "To think is to forget," wrote Mr. Borges. Science is backing him up. Harvard University psychologist Daniel Schacter tells National Geographic that forgetting is the price individuals pay for being able to interpret the world around them.

Does that ring a bell? It immediately reminded me of Holmes telling Watson (in A Study in Scarlet) that it was part if his responsibility to ignore facts that were irrelevant to his career, such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun:
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”


Anonymous said... October 24, 2007 at 11:10 AM

I was going to write something, but I forgot what

Harold Stackhurst