Cannabis’ impact on short-term memory is one of its most notable and often criticized attributes. Never mind that it can reduce dependence on opioids, anti-psychotics, insomnia medications and decrease alcohol consumption—forgetting where you left your keys is deemed a greater danger.
As it turns out, not only is forgetting where you left your keys no big deal, it may even be beneficial. New research by Paul Frankland and Blake Richards of the University of Toronto and published in Neuron, a peer reviewed journal for the neuroscience community, concluded that forgetting actually makes us smarter.
In an interview on health.com, study researcher Richards explained his view on the subject. “It’s important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that’s going to help make decisions in the real world.” Rather than just retaining information, the supposition is that memory functions to enhance intelligent decision-making by retaining what’s important and removing what’s not.
“Significantly, it would seem that cannabis’ ability to enhance forgetfulness allows for more than just intelligent decision making.”
Those who criticize cannabis for its purported short-term memory loss retain the view that memory is all about remembering. The new research places forgetting on par with remembering. The authors conclude in their research paper that it is the interaction between remembering and forgetting “that allows for intelligent decision-making in dynamic, noisy environments.”
Significantly, it would seem that cannabis’ ability to enhance forgetfulness allows for more than just intelligent decision making. By blocking or erasing traumatic memories from memory regions of the brain, cannabis provides more comfort and aid to sufferers of PTSD than any prescription pharmaceutical.
A previous study by author Paul Frankland found the connections made by new brain cells being created in the hippocampus overwrite old memories. The hippocampus is intimately involved in memory retention as it plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Since cannabis has been shown to facilitate the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, it is a reasonable hypothesis that the very creation of these new neurons is responsible for some of the purported short-term memory loss attributed to cannabis use.
Rather than being detrimental, Richards asserts the elimination of old memories caused by the creation of new neurons can be beneficial. According to Richards, “If you’re trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.”
Cannabis might cause you to forget where you left your car keys when it would be convenient to know where they are. Of greater significance is that cannabis can help you forget where you left your car keys when you no longer need to know you left them on the dining room table, because you put them in your pocket several hours ago.
“You don’t want to forget everything, and if you’re forgetting a lot more than normal that might be cause for concern,” Richards’ cautioned, “but if you’re someone who forgets the occasional detail, that’s probably a sign that your memory system is perfectly healthy and doing exactly what it should be doing.”
Expanding on Frankland’s research that the creation of new neurons can cause some memories to be lost, Richards emphasizes the importance of forgetting these old and insignificant memories through the creation of new neurons by touting the benefits of exercise. “We know that exercise increases the number of neurons in the hippocampus, but they’re exactly those details from your life that don’t actually matter, and that may be keeping you from making good decisions.”
Not that cannabis should replace exercise, but if the loss of memories from exercise is beneficial, why freak-out over the loss of memories from cannabis when it, just like exercise, can help reduce pain, mitigate psychotic symptoms and facilitate a good night’s sleep.