Is there anything you’d like to forget?

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Empty memory bubble

Using a “think/no-think” task and word pair associations (explanations are at the link), these scientists trained a group of study participants to block out part of an autobiographical memory each participant had chosen to forget.

The article doesn’t go into what kinds of memories the participants picked – they just had to be autobiographical. An example is given of an unpleasant childhood memory where you came to school in unfashionable clothes and an older kid made fun of you.

(Did any of the study participants pick memories that were more severe than that? Memories of events that could trigger PTSD?)

What exactly did ‘forgetting’ mean for the participants?
It seems they didn’t totally block out the memory and forget it ever happened. Instead they forgot some of the details. The memory also lost some of it’s “personal meaning” for them – for instance, even if a participant still remembers getting picked on for her clothes, and remembers the identity of the mean kid who picked on her, she may no longer associate the memory with feelings of personal inadequacy or self-consciousness.

A few questions to consider:

1) How long does this forgetting effect last?
(Turns out the scientists did a follow-up, and the write-up of the findings are pending.)

2) What does this kind of forgetting tell us about memory?
Our memories can have truth. But they’re also susceptible to embellishments and fabrications and personal biases. When study participants blocked out certain details, were these details more likely to be embellishments? (I don’t know if there’s a good way to find out.) If the memory lost some personal meaning for them, is it because a lot of the personal meaning came after the fact, imposed on the memory of the event by other cognitive processes? (Some people for instance are much more prone to linger over and give the worst possible interpretation to a bad memory and how it reflects on them as a person; each time they revisit a memory they might inflate the significance of the event and its negative impact.)

3) Do we want to forget?
In this study what’s induced in the participants isn’t genuine forgetting anyway; it sounds more like a memory getting dampened. I can think of situations where this kind of dampening and loss of some personal meaning might be desirable to people. But is it always desirable? When we tinker with our memories (which are already pretty vulnerable to our own non-conscious tinkering), we’re redefining ourselves. What if losing the personal meaning of certain negative memories makes us more likely to repeat a mistake, and to not learn or grow as much? The consequences aren’t always clear.

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2 responses »

  1. I watched a program about something similar on PBS recently. Pretty interesting stuff. Part of the study had to do with taking a certain Rx drug while focusing on a bad memory. This resulted in diminished negative association. I can’t remember for the life of me what the drug was. It was something weird though, like Viagra or something like that. Are you familiar with what I’m talking about?

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