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Enrichment

Press delete to erase your bad memories

Laura Swash

7th July 2016

A recent study by Manning et al (May, 2016) demonstrated that you don’t have to relive bad events or unhappy times through your memory. It is possible to delete them and intentionally forget.

Sounds incredible? Because we use contextual representations to retrieve information pertaining to our past, processes that alter our representations of context can enhance or diminish our capacity to retrieve particular memories. The researchers designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to test the hypothesis that people can intentionally forget previously experienced events by changing their mental representations of contextual information associated with those events. They had participants study two lists of words, manipulating whether they were told to forget (or remember) the first list prior to studying the second list. And they then used the fMRI scanner to see what happened.

The results suggested that context is the key to forgetting: the brain that attempts to remember keeps active the mental context that was present during the learning – whereas the brain that tries to forget discards that context, letting go of the mental scaffolding that had (probably) supported the construction of those memories in the first place.

This makes sense, if you think how revisiting your childhood home, for example, can suddenly bring back memories of events that you had forgotten. So physically moving away from a location can diminish memories, and not allowing yourself to remember the context of the unhappy times can allow you to forget them.

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Laura Swash

Laura has been teaching Psychology in the face-to-face classroom and online for many years and she enjoys writing online academic material and blogs.

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