Whether or not we realise it, we’re constantly making an effort to influence our future memories. It could be something as simple as leaving ourselves a note or to-do list for tomorrow, or taking the time to pull out our phones to capture a particularly vivid sunset.
But that’s not all we’re capable of, according to Dr. Michael Anderson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge who studies memory. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Anderson explains that in addition to determining which memories to hold onto, we also have some degree of control over what we forget. Here’s how that works and how to try it yourself.
How memories work
Our memories are shaped by something cognitive scientists like Anderson call “retrieval clues” — sensory cues we have that connect us to a previous moment, event or experience in our lives. These can be things like remembering a certain vacation every time you smell coconut, or thinking of an ex whenever you hear a particular song. So yes: kind of like what we think of as “triggers,” except not always disturbing.
How to forget something
As you’ve probably already guessed, simply avoiding certain retrieval clues or triggers isn’t very effective — especially because you never know when you’ll come across one. Instead, Anderson recommends a technique he calls “motivated forgetting.” Rather than avoiding retrieval clues, he suggests becoming more attuned to them — that way, you can reshape the way your brain responds to them.
From here, you have two options. The first is called “thought substitution.” Here’s how an example of how it works, from the Times article:
If you had a bitter argument with your sister and think of it every time you see her, work to focus on other, more positive associations. Practice until your brain sees her face and surfaces those better memories first and not the fight.
The other method is called “direct suppression,” which Anderson describes as: “You just kind of put up the mental hand and say, ‘Nope, I don’t want to think about that.’”
Is everyone able to control what they forget?
Unfortunately, not everyone has the same ability to intentionally forget something or someone, the Times reports. This makes sense in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder, in which a person would love to be able to forget something, but instead is plagued by disturbing thoughts and images related to a prior traumatic event. And, not surprisingly, being under a lot of stress and/or sleep deprived makes motivational forgetting much harder.
So if you can’t get rid of a disturbing memory altogether, why bother with the motivational forgetting at all? According to Anderson, it comes down to being able to limit the extent of the intrusion and, in turn, the negative effects of these unwanted memories.