Scientists Reveal How We Can Forget On Purpose

Willful ignorance.

brain scans
The context attached to our memories is important for helping us remember...or forget.Reigh LeBlanc via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

When people say, "Forget you heard that," they don't usually mean literally. But it turns out that you can stop yourself from remembering, at least on a small scale. People can intentionally forget memories by changing how they think about the context those memories were made in, scientists reported this week in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

In the experiment, people studied a random list of words while viewing pictures of landscapes such as beaches or forests. They were then instructed to either remember or forget those words.

The scientists then used an fMRI to track brain activity related to the outdoor scenes they’d planted as context for the word memories. They saw that people who’d been ordered to forget thought less about the context. The better people were at wiping nature-related thoughts from their minds, the fewer words they could later recall from their list.

A better understanding how we can forget on purpose could be used to help people haunted by traumatic memories.