Getting deep about dumb stuff

Why You Should Make Peace with People Who Forgot Your Birthday

Here’s what science says about a topic we’d rather leave to 12-year-olds

Photo by Glenn Han on Unsplash

A friend’s birthday is January 1. At least, according to the Facebook notification I get every new year. And every new year, without fail, she laughs at those who don’t know that her birthday is actually February 17. She doesn’t care too much about her birthday.

Many, though, take their own birthday more seriously than they’d like to admit, so when you forget to wish your friends and lovers a happy birthday or anniversary, you’ll know about it one way or another. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a text saying, “Didn’t you forget anything today?”, a not-so-subtle subtweet, or a full-blown scene.

Disappointment, scorn, resentment, or some other negative feeling often coats how we show someone that they forgot an important day. Those who forget also beat themselves up for not remembering, because more often than not, they do care about the person celebrating. To stop this constant feedback loop of negative energy over an event meant for celebration, let’s take a look at the science behind forgetting.

Forgetting is a feature of memory, not a failure of it

We used to think that memories simply decay over time, but in the past decade, scientists have discovered that forgetting isn’t a failure of memory but a feature of it. Researchers like Dr. Ronald Davis and Dr. Akihiro Yamanaka realized that dopamine and M.C.H. neurons are responsible for the suppression of neurons in the hippocampus that contain memories the brain deems unnecessary to retain.

We could argue all day about the importance of birthdays altogether, but what we need to keep in mind is that someone’s date of birth on the Gregorian calendar is arbitrary. The date itself doesn’t obviously state: It is this person’s birthday. In short, the arbitrary nature of birthdays makes it very easy for your brain to forget about them.

Sure, you can overlearn any tidbit of information and commit it to memory, but new information can easily interfere with this process. Let’s take the case of retroactive interference: If you start making new friends who are born in the same month as a close friend you’ve known for a long time, it wouldn’t be surprising if, in trying to remember all of their birthdays, you started to mix them up or forget some of them. Learning things by heart will only get you so far.

Forgetting allows the brain to make space for new information

The Østby sisters, authors of Adventures in Memory: The Science and Secrets of Remembering and Forgetting, write that new research shows that even in the case of long-term forgetting, the production of new neurons within the hippocampus helps our capacity for creating new memories by destroying existing memory traces.

Consider Sherlock Holmes. John Watson is flabbergasted when he finds out that the greatest detective of all time doesn’t know that the Earth goes around the sun. Sherlock defends himself and says that he‘d probably known about it at some point, but he’d most likely deleted this information from his memory because it has nothing to do with his allegedly one and only love, his detective work.

The appeal of Facebook’s birthday notifications — and other, ancient reminders like journals and diaries — lies in the ability to give a third party the task of storing some of your memory traces. When you allow a non-human entity to act as an extension of your cognitive space, it prevents you from forgetting both important and trivial things. That means you don’t have to intentionally forget basic knowledge like the very existence of the solar system to remember that your partner is one of those crazy people who like liquorice.

Forgetting can alleviate pain

Reminders can also come back to bite you, especially when the memories that resurface are dreadful. Facebook has come under fire many times for its inability to recognize that some anniversaries are less celebratory than others, and having art with balloons and confettis attached to a post announcing the death of a family member is, to say the least, in bad taste.

Researchers now find it more pertinent to see post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease as malfunctions of forgetting rather than remembering. This new mindset makes room for a broader understanding of the importance of forgetting. For example, Sherlock would argue that repressing specific memories through motivated forgetting — consciously or unconsciously deleting memories from your brain —is a vital skill for his job. What’s less known, though, is that motivated forgetting is also a skill you disproportionately find with people who have suffered traumatic experiences. In many cases, forgetting helps people move on with their lives.

Years ago, a friend was complaining about the youths (we were, also, part of the youths) over the fact that they could remember the time and place of their favorite football team’s most important victories but couldn’t remember the date of their grandmother’s death. I’d never experienced such a loss, so I obviously sided with him. But last year I went out of my way to interview a scientist to understand why I couldn’t remember when exctly my granfather died, so now I can say I understand. I might have forgotten the specific date, but I remember the hug I gave my mom after she called me at uni to tell me what happened; I remember the excuse I gave my friends so as not to worry them over my impromptu departure; I remember going to bed in the room I shared with my two little brothers and, for the first time, not knowing what to say. In short, I remember the experience, the motions I went through, but not necessarily the thing itself. Maybe that’s for the best.

Looking on the bright side of forgetting

As contradictory as it sounds, it’s possible to process someone forgetting a personal date of celebration through the lens of someone forgetting the date of a dreadful moment.

I understand it’s upsetting when a close friend forgets your birthday, or when your significant other forgets a dating or wedding anniversary, but chances are this person really cares about you. When you look closely at what gets forgotten, you can choose to acknowledge what this person remembers. As their brain processes what to keep and what to discard every night when they fall asleep, what stays? It might be the shape of the birth mark very few people know about, your downright bizarre liking of liquorice, or that time they managed to hide last year’s birthday gift in the ridiculously tiny studio apartment you used to live in together.

When you care enough to get upset, it means the bond you forged with that person is special. Your birthday might get forgotten one year or another, but the little memories and experiences and fun facts they hold tight for days and months and years and decades speak volumes about the relationship you have. That’s worth celebrating, too.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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