Memory is a wonderful thing, but we all have ones we’d rather not revisit. Maybe they’re painful memories of an ex, or perhaps they’re embarrassing events that make us wince with shame. Whatever they are, you can bet that they’re going to stay right where they are, festering in the recesses of your mind. But does that have to be the case? Is it possible to actually forget a memory? According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, it’s entirely possible. And the trick is to train yourself to focus on a competing memory.
It’s called selective amnesia, and it’s been around ever since the 1960s, when a study published in The Journal of Personality found that inducing hypnosis could enable people to erase many of the memories that they were instructed to forget.
To an extent, selective amnesia is something that occurs naturally within everyday life. Your brain can’t store all of the data you process on a daily basis, so it selects the ones that will best help you avoid danger and survive. But the question that this new study wanted to answer was whether or not people could erase memories without being placed into hypnosis—and the findings were promising.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge experimented with rats, who we know share many genetic, biological, and behavioral characteristics with humans, along with similar brain regions.
“Rats appear to have the same active forgetting ability as humans do—they forget memories selectively when those memories cause distraction,” Professor Michael Anderson, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, and lead author of the study, said. “And, crucially, they use a similar prefrontal control mechanism as we do. This discovery suggests that this ability to actively forget less useful memories may have evolved far back on the ‘Tree of Life’, perhaps as far back as our common ancestor with rodents some 100 million years ago.”
What they discovered was that, “when rats retrieved past events, it caused substantial and enduring forgetting of competing memories, and that this active forgetting required control processes supported by the prefrontal cortex.”
Putting it simply, the results suggest that rats (and therefore humans) can forget an unpleasant memory by focusing on a different one, thereby edging it out of the limited storage unit that is your brain.
“Quite simply, the very act of remembering is a major reason why we forget, shaping our memory according to how it is used,” Anderson said. “People are used to thinking of forgetting as something passive. Our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realize in actively shaping what they remember of their lives. The idea that the very act of remembering can cause forgetting is surprising and could tell us more about people’s capacity for selective amnesia.”
Of course, controlling your thoughts is no easy task, though practicing meditation or other concentration exercises has been shown to help in doing so. There’s also a potential dark side to selective amnesia, as the newsletter notes that “if the police interview a witness to a crime, for example, their repeated questioning about selected details might lead the witness to forget information that could later prove important.”
It’s also worth considering whether or not you want to erase any of your memories at all.
After all, there’s a reason your brain is choosing to store this information. As the classic movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poetically implies, it may be devastating to remember how much pain your ex caused you, but these painful memories can also prevent you from getting back together with them and going through the same vicious cycle over and over again. And for more on how we retain and lose memories, find out why you can’t remember most of your childhood memories.
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