Music, Fiction, and the Neuroscience of Active Forgetting

Can listening to music and reading boost adaptive forgetting of toxic memories?

Posted Dec 04, 2018

Active forgetting is a hot topic in neuroscience. In the past few weeks, two pioneering studies on how the brain purposely forgets have put active forgetting in the spotlight.

In one study, Scripps Researchers used the fruit fly, Drosophila, to identify (for the first time) how a single dopamine neuron can facilitate how a memory is formed and subsequently forgotten if necessary. New learning appears to disrupt old memory engrams while simultaneously forming new memories. These findings were published Oct. 16 in Cell Reports.

"For decades now, neuroscientists studying learning and memory have focused on how the brain acquires information and how that information is made to be stable memory, a process called memory consolidation," first author, Ron Davis of the Department of Neuroscience at Scripps Research, said in a statement. "Only recently have neuroscientists grasped the importance of active forgetting and begun to unravel the processes that cause the brain to forget. Understanding the processes of both remembering and forgetting—and potentially how to manipulate them—has a number of implications for humans. For conditions like drug addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder, it may be beneficial to develop approaches that can boost active forgetting.”

Another recent study on active forgetting published Nov. 7 in Nature Communications, “A Retrieval-Specific Mechanism of Adaptive Forgetting in the Mammalian Brain,” found that humans and rats use similar brain mechanisms to purposely forget memories that may distract from achieving a goal. 

"People are used to thinking of forgetting as something passive. Our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realize in actively shaping what they remember of their lives. The idea that the very act of remembering can cause forgetting is surprising and could tell us more about people's capacity for selective amnesia," first author, Michael Anderson, of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

Anderson et al. sum up the significance of their findings, “More broadly, these findings question whether forgetting is intrinsically problematic; rather, forgetting is a function supported by active mechanisms that help retrieve particular memories, a need that likely prevailed throughout the evolutionary history of memory—a 'mental power' possessing enough value to be conserved across mammalian species.”

Coincidentally, the same day I became aware of the new science of “adaptive forgetting,” I also read about a Nov. 5 study, “Retrospective Memories of Parental Care and Health from Mid- to Late Life.

This research shows that older adults who self-reported fond childhood memories of their parents as loving and nurturing caregivers were healthier and happier than people in their 40s and 50s who remembered lots of bad childhood memories. In my mind, when you overlap these three studies, it raises some interesting hypothetical questions about how adults might use active forgetting to “rose-tint” less-than-perfect childhood experiences in a way that helps them (and me) achieve life goals.

I first wrote about a possible link between adaptive forgetting and happier childhood memories being linked to well-being during adulthood in a November 2018 Psychology Today blog post, “Is Sugar-Coating Bad Childhood Memories a Winning Strategy?” In last month's post on this topic, I shared some personal stories of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) my sisters and I experienced during adolescence when our parents were getting divorced and how my younger sister coped with our father abandoning us by developing the mental toughness to become a trailblazer and airline pilot for FedEx.

The following section of this post picks up where my post from last month ended, before I had the chance to have a conversation with my older sister, Renée. Over Thanksgiving, we were able to take a long walk alone together through the woods, and discuss the abovementioned neuroscientific research through the lens of how active forgetting may have played a role in how each of us coped with our parents’ divorce.

My sisters and I are accustomed to making ourselves human guinea pigs and filtering our life experience through the latest brain research because our late father was a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who would take a sabbatical every seven years to focus solely on lab research. For example, in 1977, we lived in Australia as a family while he was doing a sabbatical at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, where he and colleagues examined how the brains of sheep responded to various everyday experiences such as sleep, eating, exercise, coitus, etc.

Anecdotal Examples of Boosting Adaptive Forgetting Using Fictional Literature and Pop Music

goa novi/Shutterstock
Source: goa novi/Shutterstock

To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t any specific studies that offer advice on how to “boost active forgetting.” The neuroscientific study of adaptive forgetting is still in its infancy. For the second part of this blog post, I’m going to share some first-person examples of how my older sister and I created “selective amnesia” in ways that provided some adaptive benefits for both of us—she immersed herself in reading fiction; I lost myself in music.

Notably, as adults, both of us have very fond childhood memories and even tend to remember many of the ACEs we experienced when we were kids, with a sense of humor and as “opportunities for growth” in the long run.

For the record: My personal stories herein are not intended to imply that I condone or recommend actively forgetting serious degrees of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse that undoubtedly leave lifelong scars.

That said, as a first-person example, after my older sister explained how reading novels was a tool that allowed her to create a “wonderland” in her mind regardless of the bleakness of reality, I had an “aha!” moment that ever since my earliest memories from 1972 (when I was 6 years old) I’ve used pop music as a tool for reshaping memory engrams.

Christopher Bergland
Childhood photo of Christopher Bergland and his two sisters from the early 1970s.
Source: Christopher Bergland

The most eye-opening aspect of discussing memories of our parents' divorce with my older sister was our differing recollection of when their marriage started to fall apart. Until this discussion about "the neuroscience of selective amnesia" I would have marked 'the beginning of the end' for their marriage at '77 when we moved back from Australia and relocated to Boston.

When I gave this late-1970s date, my sister laughed and said, "Chris, don't you remember how mom and dad would fight like cats and dogs every time we were in our old Chevy station wagon in the early '70s? You were constantly asking them to turn up the 8-track and singing along to 'Abbey Road' or Don Mclean's 'American Pie' at the top of your lungs to block them out; I was always lost in a book."

Because I've always loved Top 40 radio and associate specific songs with where I was when a certain song was on Casey Kasem's countdown, I began to create a timeline and realized that, indeed, my parents' divorce probably began around 1973.

That said, because I've always lived vicariously through the protagonists in a song and the overall "vibe" of early '70s music was so "Dyn-O-Mite!", I think I was immune to some of the animus that surrounded me as a kid. Anecdotally, this is an example of how music may help with both remembering the "good old days" and the active forgetting of early-life adversity.

Again, for the record: I'm not implying that using fiction or music to sugar-coat or reframe bad memories is good or bad. I'm only suggesting that there's probably a neurobiological explanation for this phenomenon that is universal and could be fine-tuned with more clinical research. 

In closing, this morning, as I was about to head out for a long jog at sunrise, I decided to make a purposefully-cheesy playlist of some early '70s songs with the word "sun" or sunrise themes in the title. I know this playlist is hokey. But each of these songs helped me create a "bright, bright sunshiny-day" feeling (without being a Pollyanna) when I was kid.... even when the world around me was dark. For any pop music trivia fans, I also included the month, year and peak position of each song on Billboard's Hot 100

The "Active Forgetting" Sunshiny-Day Playlist  

Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In  —The Fifth Dimension (6 Weeks at #1 April-May of 1969)

Here Comes the Sun —The Beatles (Abbey Road Album Track: Released September, 1969)

Ain’t No Sunshine —Bill Withers (Peaked at #3 September 1971)

Morning Has Broken  —Cat Stevens (Peaked at #6 June 1972)

I Can See Clearly Now —Johnny Nash (Four Weeks at #1 November 1972)

You Are the Sunshine of My Life —Stevie Wonder (One week at #1 May 1973)

Top of the World —The Carpenters (Two weeks at #1 December 1973)

Seasons in the Sun —Terry Jacks (Three weeks at #1 March 1974)

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me —Elton John (Peaked at #2 August 1974)

Mr. Blue Sky —ELO (Peaked at #35 August 1978)


Pedro Bekinschtein, Noelia V. Weisstaub, Francisco Gallo, Maria Renner, Michael C. Anderson. "A Retrieval-Specific Mechanism of Adaptive Forgetting in the Mammalian Brain." Nature Communications (First published: November 7, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07128-7

Jacob A. Berry, Anna Phan, Ronald L. Davis. "Dopamine Neurons Mediate Learning and Forgetting Through Bidirectional Modulation of a Memory Trace." Cell Reports (First published: October 16, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2018.09.051

William J. Chopik and Robin S. Edelstein. "Retrospective Memories of Parental Care and Health from Mid- to Late Life." Health Psychology (First published: November 5, 2018) DOI: 10.1037/hea0000694

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