What's too painful to remember we may simply choose to forget

What’s too painful to remember we may simply choose to forget

Forgetting things can be frustrating, whether it’s peoples’ names or where you left your keys. Sometimes though being able to forget a particular memory would be attractive – and now researchers think they may have found how to forget on purpose.

The vast majority of research into memory has been into the areas of forming and recalling memories. Less work has been done around forgetting, with this being seen as a failure in formation or recall. However there is growing evidence that forgetting is in fact an active process, and one that we can tap into when needed.

The idea that context is important in establishing memories has long been accepted. This is why we can recall certain events vividly, such as hearing about the 9/11 attacks, but can struggle to remember whether we locked the front door when we left the house.

Context in memory is also the basis for systems that allow people to memorise long lists of facts or names. The most famous example is that of the “memory palace”, where specific memories are attached to specific items in specific rooms. The process of recall then becomes based on walking around the memory palace (which can be your own house) and retrieving certain memories.

The most recent research (A neural signature of contextually mediated intentional forgetting) was published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. This looked at the role of context in not just forming memories, but in actively forgetting them as well. People were asked to memorise two sets of random words, whilst being shown unrelated pictures of mountains, beaches, and forests. Some were then told that they could forget one of the lists entirely.

What made this research so interesting is that they used functional MRI scanning (fMRI) to track what was happening. As people were memorising the lists of words they saw the expected brain activity relating to that. When people were told that they could forget one of the lists, the brain activity showed that not only was the word being actively forgotten, but the picture that gave the context for that memory.

The researchers conclude that their findings provide “neural support for the hypothesis that we can forget about our recent past by changing our mental context.” The reason that this is so encouraging is that it opens up possibilities for treating people with PTSD, or other troubling or intrusive memories. We know already that our memories are changeable rather than a fixed record. What this research suggests that the same process might allow us to actively forget that which is too painful to remember.

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