Who doesn't have memories that would best be forgotten? The time you had a little too much to drink at a friend's wedding, that awkward Thanksgiving with the in-laws, the water park incident.
Although such unpleasant experiences may be seemingly impossible to let go, bad memories don't necessarily have to haunt you forever and can be intentionally forgotten, according to a new study published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
Changing the context of a memory is the first step to forgetting it, reports a team of researchers from Dartmouth University and Princeton University. Context plays a fundamental role in how we organize our memories.
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For their study, the researchers conducted brain scans on 25 individuals ranging in age from 19 to 34. Each individual viewed a number of nature scenes presented to them interspersed with a list of random words. Some were instructed to remember the words they saw, while others were told to forget.
When the students were given a second list of words to go along with their nature scenes, neuroimaging revealed that participants assigned to the "forget" group wiped out scene-related activity in the brain, a pattern not scene in those told to retain the memories. The degree to which participants flushed out those thoughts predicted how many of the random words they would later remember when prompted.
There are limitations to the latest research, however. "Although our results provide evidence that we can intentionally forget by changing our contextual states, our results do not pin down the underlying mechanism of contextual change," the authors admit.
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A 2012 study published in the journal Neuron uncovered two possible cognitive tactics for being rid of bad memories, suppression and substitution. Both tactics proved equally effective, but they target the memory itself rather than the contextual cues that could incite the return of a negative experience.
Applying the findings from the latest research could lead to potentially beneficial treatments for individuals struggling to cope with painful experiences and those dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "Forgetting is typically viewed as a ‘failure' in some sense, but sometimes forgetting can be beneficial, too," lead author Jeremy Manning said in a statement.
It doesn't take a trained scientist to realize that the most painful memories are also the most difficult to forget, but researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill discovered just that in their study published in 2007. Emotional memories created with visual cues, the kind of context used in the latest study, proved the most resilient.
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