Context plays a huge part in our memories, whether those are good or bad. For some people,a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs can remind them of their grandmother’s home cooking, while for others it can remind them of when their boyfriend took them to an Italian restaurant to break up with them. However, a recent brain scanning study led by Dartmouth and Princeton has shown that people can intentionally forget past experiences by changing how they think about the context of those memories. These findings have a range of potential applications centered on enhancing memories, such as developing new educational tools and treating PTSD.
As long ago as ancient Greece, memory theorists have known that we use context to organize and retrieve our memories. Yet this team wanted to know whether and how people can intentionally forget past experiences. To do this, they designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to specifically track thoughts related to the contexts of memories and put a new twist on the old research technique of having subjects memorize and recall a list of unrelated words. In this new study, researchers showed participants images of outdoor scenes as they studied two lists of random words, manipulating whether they were told to forget or remember the first list before studying the second list. The researchers hoped that the scene images would bias the contextual thoughts people had as they studied the words to include scene-related thoughts. fMRI allowed them to track how much people were thinking of scene-related things at each moment during the experiment.
The study’s participants were told to either forget or remember the random words presented to them interspersed between scene images. Right after they were told to forget, the fMRI showed they had “flushed out” the scene-related activity from their brains. Yet when researchers told participants to remember the studied list rather than forget it, this didn’t occur, and the amount that people flushed out predicted how many of the studied words they would remember later, revealing that the process is effective at facilitating forgetting.
Most memory studies are often more concerned with how we remember than how we forget. While forgetting is typically viewed as a “failure”, it can also be beneficial. It can help with overcoming PTSD or getting old information out of our heads to focus on learning new things.
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