Can You Make Yourself Forget Something? Study Shows People Are Surprisingly Good At Repressing Things

At one point or another — by which I mean, after something hideously embarrassing happens — virtually everyone has found themselves wondering the same thing: Can you make yourself forget something? A perfect memory is usually seen as a good thing, but in reality, being able to recall every moment of your life is enough to drive anyone up the wall. (Seriously: It's called hyperthymesia, and it's not necessarily a good thing.) Most people have memories they'd rather not think about, but is it actually possible to force yourself to forget something entirely?

That's the question posed by researchers at Dartmouth and Princeton Universities in a study published in this month's Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. Like most studies measuring recall, participants were given two list of unrelated words and asked to memorize as many as they could. However, some participants were then asked to forget the first list prior to reading the second. Researchers interspersed these words with images of outdoor scenes in the hopes that participants would unconsciously associated the images with the list of words; in other words, they were hoping the images would be considered context for the memories.

During the memorization process, participants underwent an fMRI scan measuring brain activity by way of blood flow. Here's where it gets interesting: Thanks to the fMRI images, researchers were able to track how much people thought about the outdoor images. When participants were asked to forget words, researchers found that their brains "flushed out" context-related activity.


In contrast, this phenomenon wasn't seen in people who were asked to remember words. Furthermore, people who flushed out more thoughts were able to remember fewer words later, suggesting that the process plays an active role to our ability to forget.

"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," lead author Jeremy Manning said, according to Science Daily.

So what's the big deal about being able to forget things? A certain degree of forgetfulness is a natural part of your brain's ability to sort through memories. Although the human brain is capable of remembering vast amounts of information, much of it is simply extraneous. Do you really need to remember what your cousin's ex-girlfriend was wearing at a party six years ago? Rather than filing everything away, the brain has developed two kinds of memory: short-term, which holds a small amount of information temporarily, and long-term, which stores huge amounts of knowledge. Obviously, not all memories go to the long-term stage; instead, your brain consolidates certain memories and discards others.In fact, previous research has shown that people can actually train themselves to forget things on purpose.


Basically, you already forget some things on a daily basis, and that's not a bad thing. As the Dartmouth and Princeton researchers pointed out, the ability to deliberately forget memories could be helpful when recovering from trauma or for people with depression, who often dwell on negative thoughts. It may even be useful if you're learning something new and need to oust outdated information, Manning noted.

"Memory studies are often concerned with how we remember rather than how we forget, and forgetting is typically viewed as a 'failure' in some sense, but sometimes forgetting can be beneficial, too," he said, according to Science Daily.

So there you have it! People can absolutely train themselves to forget things, which will come in handy next time someone catches me on hour six of a kitten video binge. If only you could train other people to forget things, too.


Images: Andrew Zaeh for Bustle; Giphy (3)