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Fake News: Neuroscientists Did NOT Say Your Forgetfulness Is A Sign Of Extraordinary Intelligence

  • by: Maarten Schenk
  • (Fri, 29 Mar 2019 17:36:55 Z)

Did neuroscientists claim forgetfulness is a sign of extraordinary intelligence? No, that's not true: an article cribbing from an old CNN report about a scientific paper added a headline with a hyperbolic claim that does not match what the paper actually says.

The claim recently went viral through an article published on March 12, 2019 published by Healthy Food House titled "Neuroscientists Say Your Forgetfulness Is A Sign Of Extraordinary Intelligence" (archived here) which opened:

If you keep forgetting things, like important dates, a friend's birthday, the name of people you have met, words you want to use, you are surely worried.

However, you can finally relax, as according to scientists, forgetfulness is a sign of higher intelligence. Some people have a more efficient brain and easily memorize more things and details. On the other hand, there are people who cannot remember tiny details or things they have learned a long time ago.

Screenshot of https://www.healthyfoodhouse.com/neuroscientists-say-your-forgetfulness-is-a-sign-of-extraordinary-intelligence/

Users on social media only saw this title, description and thumbnail:

Neuroscientists Say Your Forgetfulness Is A Sign Of Extraordinary Intelligence

If you keep forgetting things, like important dates, a friend's birthday, the name of people you have met, words you want to use, you are surely worried. However, you can finally relax, as according to scientists, forgetfulness is a sign of higher intelligence. Some people have a more efficient brain and easily memorize more things [...]

The article bases this on research by Paul Frankland and Blake Richards from the University of Toronto and it quotes this article (archived here) at Global Remedy House as the source:

Neuroscientists Say Your Forgetfulness Is A Sign Of Extraordinary Intelligence

How often you find yourself forgetting things? Whether it is the date of a friend`s birthday, the name of someone from the past, or a word you want to use. This might have felt troublesome and uncooperative. But, you can get relax now as according to recent studies, forgetfulness is a sign of higher intelligence.

That one in turn quotes this one (archived here):

Neuroscientists Say Your Forgetfulness Is A Sign Of Extraordinary Intelligence

Consider how frequently you find yourself forgetting certain things. You might forget the name of someone from your past, a word you want to use, or the date of a friend's birthday. Therefore, you might have felt very uncooperative and unsure of yourself. However, now you can get relax because according to recent studies, Forgetfulness ...

Which finally references a CNN story from March 8, 2018 which apparently also appeared on health.com (archived here):

Forgetfulness can make you smarter, study says

A paper concludes that forgetting things is not just normal, it actually makes us smarter. The researchers say the goal of memory is to optimize intelligent decision-making by holding on to what's important and letting go of what's not.

That article references the actual scientific article, which is titled "The Persistence and Transience of Memory" (Perspective| Volume 94, ISSUE 6, P1071-1084, June 21, 2017) and its summary reads:

The predominant focus in the neurobiological study of memory has been on remembering (persistence). However, recent studies have considered the neurobiology of forgetting (transience). Here we draw parallels between neurobiological and computational mechanisms underlying transience. We propose that it is the interaction between persistence and transience that allows for intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments. Specifically, we argue that transience (1) enhances flexibility, by reducing the influence of outdated information on memory-guided decision-making, and (2) prevents overfitting to specific past events, thereby promoting generalization. According to this view, the goal of memory is not the transmission of information through time, per se. Rather, the goal of memory is to optimize decision-making. As such, transience is as important as persistence in mnemonic systems.

Notice the headlines getting less and less spectacular as we moved down the chain? The actual scientific paper does not claim forgetfulness is a sign of extraordinary intelligence at all. It merely says that in order to learn things and to make intelligent decisions it seems to be a good strategy to sometimes erase incorrect, outdated or unimportant information from memory. This appears to be true for human brains but could also be a good idea for machine learning and artificial intelligence systems according to the authors of the paper.

The paper does not make any claims about the relationship between forgetfulness and intelligence (although it does say the goal of having a memory is to help make intelligent decisions about future events).

NewsGuard, a company that uses trained journalist to rank the reliability of websites, describes healthyfoodhouse.com as:

A diet and lifestyle site that promotes potentially dangerous and unproven natural health remedies.

According to NewsGuard the site does not maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability. Read their full assessment here.

We wrote about healthyfoodhouse.com before, here are our most recent articles that mention the site:

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About the author:

Maarten Schenk is our resident expert on fake news and hoax websites. He likes to go beyond just debunking trending fake news stories and is endlessly fascinated by the dazzling variety of psychological and technical tricks used by the people and networks who intentionally spread made-up things on the internet.  He can often be found at conferences and events about fake news, disinformation and fact checking when he is not in his office in Belgium monitoring and tracking the latest fake article to go viral.

Read more about or contact Maarten Schenk

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