In this newsletter the topic is usually how to remember things. Memory loss is a huge worry, especially among those of us who are getting old.
But what if you want to forget something? Sounds odd, but sometimes that is the case. For example, someone suffering from PTSD is haunted by terrible things that happened to them in the past.
Or maybe your unwanted memory is a relationship that went bad. “How will I ever be able to forget you?” is a question millions of people have asked themselves one time or another.
In the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a couple’s relationship turns sour, so each decides to undergo a medical procedure to wipe their former partner from their memory.
That was science fiction, but in fact therapists and psychologists are very interested in the real science of removing selected memories. Here’s what they’ve found. .
Researchers who have looked into this topic believe it could help people suffering disorders encompassing fear, substance abuse, shame, neglect, the previously mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder, or any very painful experience.
Intuition tells us the way to forget an unwanted memory is to simply put it out of your mind. Stop thinking about it. But a surprising new study suggests we should do the opposite.
This makes sense to me. I’ve never had much success at NOT thinking about something. Thinking about it instead might be worth a try. Let’s proceed to the specifics. . .
Need to Hit the Sweet Spot to Succeed
The study was carried out by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin who enrolled 24 men and women aged 18 to 35.
The volunteers had to view a series of 200 individual pictures of male and female faces, and various indoor and outdoor scenes.
Each picture appeared for several seconds then disappeared. At that point each participant had to make a quick decision to either remember or forget each image. As they did so, brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
While previous research in this area has focused on more familiar areas of the brain, the Austin team looked at activity in the ventral temporal cortex (VTC).
Patterns of activity in the VTC correspond to memory representations of visual stimuli.
The findings, just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, revealed that in order to forget an unpleasant experience, a moderate amount of attention needs to be focused on it.
When the participants chose to forget an image, more processing was required in the VTC than when they chose to remember it.
“This suggests a new route to successful forgetting,” the researchers wrote. “To forget a memory, its mental representation should be enhanced to trigger memory weakening.”
Lead author of the study, Tracy Wang, said this about the wildly counter-intuitive discovery: “A moderate level of brain activity is critical to this forgetting mechanism. Too strong, and it will strengthen the memory; too weak, and you won’t modify it.
“Importantly it’s the intention to forget that increases the activation of the memory. When this activation hits the ‘moderate level’ sweet spot, that’s when it leads to later forgetting that experience.”
Asked to comment on the study, Lili Sahakyan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, said, “This idea that memories have to be strengthened before they can be weakened is surprising in that it’s not how we presume memory works. But it’s a very solid finding, and we are following up on it.”
Other Ways to Forget
This adds to other findings that demonstrate we are not at the mercy of passive forgetting — just hoping the experience will fade over time. We can take active steps to fade it out.
Some other tested techniques include suppressing retrieval of the memory, redirecting it, or distracting from it with a competing memory. Each uses a different part of the brain, but all can disrupt traces of the unwanted memory.
Dr. Allison Lamont from New Zealand worked with clients after the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes.
She believes that talking about the trauma in detail for the first time is necessary, but focusing on it repeatedly is counter productive, because it reinforces the emotion attached to it.
Her preferred approach is active forgetting.
“You are forgetting to remember it. Forgetting that this is your story and you have to remember it every day. And when you do tell the story you are telling the narrative about what happened to you, but the emotion has been detached.”
To avoid dwelling on unwanted thoughts, she suggests the following:
Acknowledge the hurtful memory, but tell yourself it’s just a thought, albeit a familiar and unwanted one. Tell yourself you’re not going with it today, not going to focus on it, because it leads to somewhere you don’t want to go.
To achieve that, distract yourself with something far more positive. Substitute it with a pleasant thought or activity. Alternatively, take control. Tell yourself you’re not going to give it any space right now and mentally banish it.
Dr. Lamont accepts that the approach takes determination and persistence, but if you keep at it, the thought will appear less and less often, and eventually fade away.