Research discovers two opposite ways our brain voluntarily forgets unwanted memories

If only there were a way to forget that humiliating faux pas at last night's dinner party. It turns out there's not one, but two opposite ways in which the brain allows us to voluntarily forget unwanted memories, according to a study published by Cell Press October 17 in the journal Neuron. The findings may explain how individuals can cope with undesirable experiences and could lead to the development of treatments to improve disorders of memory control. Credit: Current Biology, Benoit et al.

If only there were a way to forget that humiliating faux pas at last night's dinner party. It turns out there's not one, but two opposite ways in which the brain allows us to voluntarily forget unwanted memories, according to a study published by Cell Press October 17 in the journal Neuron. The findings may explain how individuals can cope with undesirable experiences and could lead to the development of treatments to improve disorders of memory control.

"This study is the first demonstration of two distinct mechanisms that cause such forgetting: one by shutting down the remembering system, and the other by facilitating the remembering system to occupy awareness with a substitute memory," says lead study author Roland Benoit of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge.

Previous studies have shown that individuals can voluntarily block memories from awareness. Although several neuroimaging studies have examined the involved in intentional forgetting, they have not revealed the cognitive tactics that people use or the precise . Two possible ways to forget unwanted memories are to suppress them or to substitute them with more desirable memories, and these tactics could engage distinct .

To test this possibility, Benoit and Michael Anderson of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit used to examine the brain activity of volunteers who had learned associations between pairs of words and subsequently attempted to forget these memories by either blocking them out or recalling substitute memories.

Although the strategies were equally effective, they activated distinct . During memory suppression, a called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex inhibited activity in the hippocampus, a region critical for recalling past events. On the other hand, memory substitution was supported by caudal prefrontal cortex and midventrolateral prefrontal cortex—two regions involved in bringing specific memories into awareness in the presence of distracting memories.

"A better understanding of these mechanisms and how they break down may ultimately help understanding disorders that are characterized by a deficient regulation of memories, such as posttraumatic stress disorder," Benoit says. "Knowing that distinct processes contribute to forgetting may be helpful, because people may naturally be better at one approach or the other."

More information: Benoit et al.: "Opposing mechanisms support the voluntary forgetting of unwanted memories." Neuron, 2012.

Related Stories

New research shows that we control our forgetfulness

Jul 05, 2011

Have you heard the saying "You only remember what you want to remember"? Now there is evidence that it may well be correct. New research from Lund University in Sweden shows that we can train ourselves to forget things.

Brain's memory storing is studied

Mar 01, 2006

University of California-Irvine scientists have identified the neural activity that occurs when the brain "sets the stage" for retaining a memory.

Remembering to forget

Jun 22, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- New research suggests that it is possible to suppress emotional autobiographical memories.  The study published this month by psychologists at the University of St Andrews reveals that individuals ...

How we remember each other

Apr 03, 2007

Researchers at McGill University’s Douglas Mental Health University Institute, in collaboration with a French team at the University of Paris, have used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify the part of the brain ...

Recommended for you

Continuing the quest for better stroke therapies

20 hours ago

Helping people recover from the debilitating effects of a stroke is an immensely complex challenge that requires deep knowledge of neurophysiology as well as effective therapy. Advancing such knowledge to improve therapeutic ...

At last, hope for ALS patients?

23 hours ago

U of T researchers have found a missing link that helps to explain how ALS, one of the world's most feared diseases, paralyses and ultimately kills its victims. The breakthrough is helping them trace a path to a treatment ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Oct 17, 2012
Hyperthymestic syndrome. The Antagonist.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps.
A word is worth a thousand associations. More likely.
Why stop there?