Do You Have Memories You Wish You Could Forget?

Don't let unwanted memories control you.

Posted Dec 22, 2018

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Psychologists and neuroscientists have devoted substantial efforts to understanding memory and discovering ways of enhancing recall. But many people might be frustrated with their inability to forget emotionally painful experiences. A stressful, traumatic, or sorrowful event can extend its damage to a person’s well-being long after when it occurred as it lives on memory. Recurring memories of traumatic events or painful loss can be detrimental to feelings of security, enjoyment, trust, and optimism. If you are one of these people, you might recognize the signs of sweating palms, racing heart, or your eyes welling up with tears. In the most severe cases, being haunted by unwanted memories can lead to depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.

There are no simple answers to questions surrounding the long-term impact of adverse experiences. Some research studies have demonstrated that people can deliberately forget specific material in response to experimental instructions. Recent research suggests that the ability to forget upon command depends on inhibitory executive-control mechanisms associated with activity in prefrontal areas of the brain. However, other studies have found that negative thoughts can come into conscious awareness repeatedly in a process referred to as rumination without explicit cues or efforts to remember them. Even non-emotional thoughts can remain prominent in mind, despite deliberate efforts to suppress them.

If you find yourself suffering from recurring unwanted memories, you might wonder why some research suggests that you should be able to forget, inhibit, or repress them. One possibility is that despite their inherent scientific importance, laboratory studies might not always explain everyday experiences in complex individual lives. In fact, trauma survivors often report difficulty forgetting their disturbing memories despite their great desire to do so. Consistent with such reports, participants with past traumatic experiences were less able to forget trauma-relevant words in laboratory studies.

Perhaps contradictory research findings will be understood once the many relevant variables have been examined and controlled. Some people have greater executive control over the flow of information from one area of the brain to another. The same person might be able to ignore unwanted memories while engaged in activity requiring their total attention, but lose the battle once they relax or let down their guard. The ability to control the retrieval of memories in a safe, orderly laboratory might fail us in a complex world that can surprise us with unexpected triggers. Material processed in research might not threaten us — or even our sense of who we are — in the same way aspects of our daily lives can.

Even studies in support of the ability to intentionally forget have not assumed that forgotten material is gone forever. Unlike the metaphor of deleting it and wiping the brain clean, a more plausible model is one of weakening or redirecting the pathways that result in a stored memory being activated in conscious awareness. In other words, a person might be able to inhibit retrieval of a stored memory rather than erasing it from storage. 

Why would this difference be important? Psychology has long engaged in a complicated debate over notions of the temporary suppression or repression of unwanted or emotionally threatening memories. If it takes effort to suppress a memory, exerting that effort might detract from our performance on ongoing tasks or lessen our enjoyment of present activities. The effort might cause fatigue, anxiety, or sadness. Being able to inhibit an unwanted thought in one situation doesn’t mean that the thought won’t resurface in a different context. Just when you think you’ve gotten past it, the painful memory might pop back into your mind, catching you in an unguarded moment. Keeping unwanted memory from consciousness doesn’t mean that the emotions connected to the memory are prevented from affecting us. Feeling sad or frightened without knowing why could indicate that while we aren’t thinking of the content of the event, we can still feel the negative impact of the experience.

If you could take a medical treatment to erase an unwanted memory from your brain, would you? Escaping the emotional pain of a past adverse event might be liberating and allow you to enjoy the present and anticipate a hopeful future. At the same time, deleting the memory wouldn’t change the past. Destroying the memory wouldn’t eliminate the ways in which that experience has affected you. In many cases, a productive resolution may involve using the memory to gain insight into how you became the person you are, and learning how to use the choices you make now to enjoy becoming who you want to be.

Research suggests that it is easier to get beyond certain types of emotional hurt when a person can forgive the one who hurt them. The unwillingness or inability to forgive might motivate remembering the hurt, at least in part to justify the desire for justice or retaliation. Having forgiven someone, a person might feel less need to remember the painful experience and be better able to forget the details of the injury. Forgetting can then contribute to learning coping strategies that enable a person to move on. Forgiving and forgetting can advance a person’s effort to avoid being defined by their painful past. Keeping the unwanted memories under control frees a person to establish or reaffirm their identity on their own terms. Professional help is available for those who struggle with overcoming painful memories. No one has to do it alone.


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