Forget Your Most Unwanted Memories

Danielle Rennard, Staff Writer

Do you have any memories that you just want to forget? A new study has shown that the brain has two different ways of handling those unwanted memories. Researchers say there are ways to avoid thinking of unpleasant or unhappy memories; you can either just block out the memory or simply substitute it with another one.

Roland Benoit, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England, used the example of having a fight with a loved one. He stated, “You don’t want to think about it because you want to just go on with life. You can somehow push it out, or you could try to think of something else, like maybe that nice vacation to France you had together.” To prove this study, Dr. Benoit and Michael Anderson asked 36 adults to partake in a memory activity. In the first group, participants were told to associate the words “beach” and “Africa.” A different group was asked to not think about the associated words at all. The third group was told to associate the words “snorkel” and “beach,” instead of “Africa.”

The participants were then put under a functional M.R.I. scanner. The results showed that while both suppression and substitution cause forgetting, a different region of the brain controls each one. With memory substitution, the caudal prefrontal cortex and midventrolateral prefrontal cortex create a network that works with the hippocampus to switch out the new information with details people would soon forget. However, when an unwanted memory is suppressed, the dorsal prefrontal cortex actually hinders the functioning of the hippocampus. “It thus effectively breaks the remembering process. This, in turn, disrupts the memory representations that would be needed for recalling the unwanted memory later on,” Benoit explains.

“It is perfectly natural for people, upon encountering an unwelcome reminder, to try to put the unpleasant reminding out of mind. We all have experienced this. Intuitively, it feels as though we solved this problem.” Benoit also stated that healthy individuals use both strategies interchangeably and both methods appear to be equally effective. So the next time you embarrass yourself in front of a crowd or experience something you want to forget, your brain will do all the work by either suppressing or substituting the memory, and you might just forget it.

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