Would You Forget Your Most Painful Memories If You Could?


Matrix-y memory researcher Malcolm MacLeod was curious whether people might be able to improve their ability to forget embarrassing or traumatizing personal memories, so he ran some experiments on “intentional forgetting” with co-researcher Saima Noreen. Both were doubtful — “Autobiographical memory is so vivid, so rich, that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to keep from mind those sorts of events that you’ve personally experienced,” MacLeod told WYNC — but they found a significant number of their test subjects experienced a “significant forgetting effect” after trying really hard to disassociate certain memories over a period of time.

Most interesting to the researchers wasn’t the roughly 12 percent drop in the levels of details recalled, but the part of the memories that were forgotten: the icky emotional part. For example, one woman, Noreen, worked on forgetting this memory:

The cause of the event was me wearing a new pair of trousers that my mom had bought for me for secondary school when I first started. The consequence of the event was that at lunch time when I went to the bathroom an older girl started making fun of me for having short trousers. It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing. It made me feel very self conscious and I hated that.

After blocking that memory over and over again, Noreen said she “began to lose the personal meaning associated with that memory”:

“The fact that she said, ‘It was the first time I felt uncomfortable with what I was wearing,’ and also she forgot that she said that it made her feel very self-conscious and she hated that,” Noreen says.

Basically, Noreen didn’t forget the memory itself, but she forgot that it was emotionally painful.

Doesn’t the experiment seem like a sped-up version of the saying “time heals all wounds”? The more time that passes after cringe-inducing experience, the less you cring when you recall it. But it’s interesting how focusing on the memory rather than trying to repress it turned out to help the test subjects successfully detach themselves from some of the hurtful moments in their past. (Well, I guess it’s more like focusing on repressing the memory, but still.) BRB, thinking super hard about a really difficult conversation I had with my ex-boyfriend last week!

Can We Learn To Forget Our Memories? [WYNC]

Image via Lightspring Shutterstock.

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