Is there anything you’d like to forget?

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.


Taking a break to enhance memory

Incorporate short breaks into your learning/studying/reading, and it’s more likely that you’ll retain the material better, even several days later.

However, not just any break will do. In the study cited at the link, the breaks involved “wakeful resting” – nothing too mentally taxing (the experimenters had participants sitting in the dark with eyes closed for ten minutes). In real life I guess you could sit back and relax for ten minutes but more likely you’d be checking email, answering the phone or getting up to walk around, and maybe some of those activities would interfere more with memory consolidation than quiet sedentary relaxation.

The study’s participants had to remember short stories. I’m not sure how long the stories were. Is it good to take breaks only after shorter chunks of material, or is this strategy still effective for bigger chunks? Does overall coherence of the material matter more than length? (e.g. where you’re stopping to take your break: mid-paragraph vs. mid-sentence?) Furthermore, the stories were presented aurally; would that make a difference – hearing the material you’re hoping to retain instead of reading it to yourself?

The participants in the study were elderly adults aging normally, a refreshing change from the usual practice of using college students (undergraduates are easy to recruit; you don’t even have to pay them, just make it mandatory for them to participate in research studies to fulfill some kind of course requirement). However at some point the experiment probably will be replicated with college students to see if all the results are generalizable to younger adults too.

Synaptic Sunday #9 – Vivid Memory Edition

1) Why Does a Vivid Memory ‘Feel So Real?’

Researchers found that vivid memory and real perceptual experience share “striking” similarities at the neural level, although they are not “pixel-perfect” brain pattern replications.


“Our study has confirmed that complex, multi-featured memory involves a partial reinstatement of the whole pattern of brain activity that is evoked during initial perception of the experience. This helps to explain why vivid memory can feel so real.”

Are vivid memories more accurate than non-vivid memories? Less vulnerable to fabrication and distortion? A memory can feel quite vivid but could be made up in part. Maybe there are certain aspects of a scene that we remember more accurately and other parts that we fill-in, even for a memory that feels like a powerfully accurate recording playing in our minds.

As always, it’s important to distinguish between the accuracy of the memory and the confidence people have in the accuracy of the memory. Are we good judges of how accurately we’ve remembered something?


2) Psychologists Link Emotion to Vividness of Perception and Creation of Vivid Memories

Have you ever wondered why you can remember things from long ago as if they happened yesterday, yet sometimes can’t recall what you ate for dinner last night?

Aging, memory, and context

There are limitations to memory research studies conducted only in the lab, especially if they never include memory tasks and situations that are encountered in everyday life (in fact this is a limitation of lab studies investigating any cognitive process, not just memory).

For example, when researchers take into account how aging adults remember things in day-to-day life, they start to get a different picture of the difficulties people experience with memory as they get older:

When people are tested in the lab and have nothing to rely on but their own memories, young adults typically do better than older adults, she said.

Remarkably, when the same studies are conducted in real-world settings, older adults sometimes outperform young adults at things like remember appointments or when to take medicines.

Synaptic Sunday #1

Synaptic Sunday is a weekly collection of thought-provoking links related by similar topics:

1. If we remember more, can we read deeper–and create better? Part I.

In the very process of memorizing, remembering—and faltering—we don’t just learn more about what we are reading. We also learn more about how we are reading, how we are reacting to the material—and, in a way (or, at least, after we’ve stopped to ponder our mistakes in the manner Cooke suggests we do) why we are reacting to it as we do.

Interesting discussion on memorization, and what the process can show us about our minds and how we analyze whatever it is we’re memorizing (the example in the article is literary work). Also starts off with an interesting description of a memorization technique using the body’s movements, which can serve as cues for later recall.

2. Another post on the unreliability and malleability of memory

Elizabeth Loftus has produced a body of work showing that our memories aren’t strictly accurate recordings of what we’ve taken in through the senses, but that we can unintentionally shape, elaborate on, and outright fabricate them, and are influenced by suggestive remarks made by others (her work has had an enormous impact on cognitive psychology and also the legal field – how witness testimony is solicited and handled). At the link you’ll find further links to an interview with Loftus, and also to an article from Time Magazine on the faultiness of memory.

3. Memory Training Unlikely to Help in Treating ADHD, Boosting IQ

Overall, working memory training improved performance on tasks related to the training itself but did not have an impact on more general cognitive performance such as verbal skills, attention, reading or arithmetic.

I’m not sure what the working memory training tasks are; I’ve never participated in such a program (one example of a training task is mentioned at the link). Different kinds of memory processes may be related to and interact with other cognitive processes, but there needs to be caution about the claims made by people selling these programs. If they’re telling you that an intensive program of memory tasks will boost your cognitive ability more broadly, you have to ask yourself if this is really the case. Can they give you proof, linking training in certain memory tasks or series of tasks with measurable improvements in other areas of cognition and in academic success?

Maybe their whole approach of “loading up the brain with training exercises” is the wrong one to take to begin with, if they really want to use these tasks as a means of strengthening cognitive abilities more generally and not only your performance on those specific memory tasks. Maybe the problem with the training exercises is that they’re dry, rote short-term memory tasks, which don’t call on other areas of cognition as much as other kinds of memory tasks would.

4. Memories are Crucial for Imagining the Future

The past and future may seem like different worlds, yet the two are intimately intertwined in our minds. In recent studies on mental time travel, neuroscientists found that we use many of the same regions of the brain to remember the past as we do to envision our future lives.

Fascinating article.