Forget it

By Will Carlin

It was a tough moment for Roger Federer. He already was down a set in the final of the 2017 Swiss Indoors to Juan del Potro, and he had just blown a second-set break point opportunity at 2-1 by making an error on a relatively straight-forward backhand volley. Uncharacteristically, he smashed his racquet down on the net in frustration.

Now, at 2-2, he was struggling to hold serve.

After opening the game with a double fault and a ball in the net to go down 0-30, Federer won three points in a row to reach game point. Then he repeated game’s opening sequence with another double fault and another forehand into the net.
This would have been a huge service break for del Potro, putting him in control of the second set and potentially propelling him to victory. But Federer forced an error out of the tall Argentine. Deuce again. And again.

After struggling throughout the game, Federer hit two huge serves to hold serve. Forty minutes later, he won the tournament for his eighth time with an innocuous looking score of 6-7, 6-4, 6-3.

Paul Annacone, Federer’s former coach, was commentating on the Tennis Channel. After Federer won that critical service game, Annacone said, “One of the things that is so amazing about Roger is his ability to put points in the past unbelievably quickly. Two double faults and two unforced errors would be enough to discourage anyone, but Roger wins a tight game with two service winners. It’s incredible. Most people can’t forget that fast.”

Annacone was onto something, and it’s a little counter-intuitive.

Most of us want to remember more things, not forget them. Imagine if you could recite entire speeches, word for word, after hearing them once. Or if you could quickly memorize complex math formulas, passages in foreign languages and tables consisting of fifty numbers or nonsense syllables. You might never lose on Jeopardy!

A man named Solomon Shereshevsky could do all those things and more. In fact, according to Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria, who wrote about Shereshevsky in The Mind of a Mnemonist, once he memorized a list, he could reproduce it years later. It turned out, however, that the accumulation of all these details were problematic for Shereshevsky.

When asked to tell the meaning of a story he memorized, for example, he was unable to do so. “No,” he said. “This is too much. Each word calls up images; they collide with one another, and the result is chaos. I can’t make anything out of this.”

A 2011 article in Scientific American by Ingrid Wickelgren titled “Trying to Forget,” recounted Shereshevsky’s story and said that “he wanted desperately to forget. In one futile attempt, he wrote down items he wanted purged from his mind and burned the paper.”

The article goes on to tell about a UCLA psychologist named Robert A. Bjork, who proposed in 1970 that one purpose of forgetting may be to “clean” out your brain of things no longer needed so that they wouldn’t interfere with new information. “When people voice complaints about their memory, they invariably assume that the problem is one of insufficient retention of information,” Bjork wrote. “In a very real sense, however, the problem may be at least partly a matter of insufficient or inefficient forgetting.”

Though Bjork was largely ignored when he first posited his theory, it is now widely accepted and has been largely validated by looking at brain activity in various memory—and forgetting—experiments. One of these found that your brain will impede the recall of some stored information if you learn similar new information—for example, if you memorize a friend’s new phone number, your brain appears to dampen the previous number in your memory.

Not only does forgetting help us access thoughts that are truly important by tidying out less valuable ones, but it also may help us with emotional recovery. “You want to forget embarrassing things,” said Zara Bergström, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge.

This is where sports come into play. If you hit the tin or get a bad call from the referee, you want to move on. But, as all squash players know, it can be tricky. When we are in a heightened emotional state, it can be more difficult to put aside dark memories.

Interestingly, we can learn to suppress memories with practice. One method, tested by psychologist Karl-Heinz Bäuml of Regensburg University in Germany, seemed to work particularly well: students who were told in advance to suppress a memory could do so more effectively than those who weren’t. This indicates that if you prepare in advance for the need to put a bad call or an unforced error out of your mind ahead of time, you may be better able to do exactly that.

Forgetting does not come equally to everyone. “There’s a huge range in how effective people are at forgetting,” said Benjamin J. Levy, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University. Some people who have excellent
memory skills actually find themselves remembering more after attempts to suppress; those with depression or ADHD also seem to have more trouble repressing troubling memories; and the skill seems to diminish after the age of twenty-five, which may explain why the “yips” in golf typically occur in players over thirty.

A few things seem certain: the ability to dampen a memory can reduce its emotional impact; the ability to dampen a memory can be enhanced by preparing ahead of time; and the ability to dampen a recent memory is at least partly a skill that can be learned.

It is worth remembering that Federer, as a teenager, had a tough time with anger. He let mistakes throw him into a funk. What now looks effortless resulted from intentional practice.

You think it’s all natural? Fuhgeddaboudit.