A great memory can be a gift and a curse. A cherished memory can fill your heart when recalled — while a dark memory may plague your brain, disturb your thought process and stress you out.
It turns out the context of our memories plays a significant role in the recollection process and a Dartmouth and Princeton-led brain scanning study shows that folks can deliberately ditch undesirable memories by altering the context of them. It’s possible to train our brains to intentionally forget past experiences, according to the new study featured in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.
Sights and sounds can offer context to a memory. The way the sun may thread its way through branches at just the right angle or Otis Redding’s ‘These Arms of Mine’ playing in the background of your first kiss with a lover could provide context to the memory. These contexts can trigger it. While many studies focus on trying to figure out how we remember things, this study is also looking at how we forget.
Though it may be wonderful to recall moments like these while in a relationship — it can be stressful or frustrating for individuals who are struggling with a breakup or post-traumatic stress disorder. Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: sometimes we just want to forget.
The folks behind the study designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment in efforts to track thoughts related to a memory’s context. By using images of landscapes or scenes and words, the researchers played around with, well, memories.
Like most things, it’s all about context. When the participants were instructed to forget (or remember) the words from the list, the fMRI did its thing and suggested that their brains responded by flushing out the scenes they associated to them.
“It’s like intentionally pushing thoughts of your grandmother’s cooking out of your mind if you don’t want to think about your grandmother at that moment,” Author Jeremy Manning, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth told Neuroscience News. The researchers were able to physically measure and quantify that process by using brain data for their work.
Of course, real life memories are complicated and the contexts of our memories are always evolving. But according to this study, if you can bias humans to incorporate scenes to words — how they remember and forget them can be tracked — suggesting the possibility to deliberately forget is out there.
Image credit: Tumblr/eriklehnsherrs