Research discovers two opposite ways our brain voluntarily forgets unwanted memories

October 17, 2012, Cell Press
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."

Explore further: New research shows that we control our forgetfulness

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

July 5, 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.

Remembering to forget

June 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 ...

Scientists identify neurotranmitters that lead to forgetting

May 9, 2012
While we often think of memory as a way of preserving the essential idea of who we are, little thought is given to the importance of forgetting to our wellbeing, whether what we forget belongs in the "horrible memories department" ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...

1 comment

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?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.