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We all have memories we wish we could erase: the time we forgot our lines as the lead in the school play, the disastrous blind date that ended with us vomiting on our would-be suitor, our entire junior high experience -- especially if it involved headgear, a back brace or florescent leg warmers.
Well, wish no more. Turns out, wiping out unpleasant memories isn’t something accomplished only in Jason Bourne movies or with a couple cans of Four Loko. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have found that people can actually train themselves to forget.
According to psychology researcher Gerd Thomas Waldhauser, in the same way that we can control our motor impulses (by, say, rapidly instructing the brain not to catch a scalding dish falling from the counter), we can control our memory. In an experiment that has action-movie intrigue written all over it, Waldhauser instructed volunteers to practice retrieving and forgetting certain facts while hooked up to equipment that monitored brain activity. He found that the study’s subjects were able to repeatedly block out the information they didn’t want to remember until they could no longer retrieve the memory at all.
Meanwhile, the brain scans showed increased activity in the left and right frontal cortex -- areas of the brain used to repress memory. This led to a reduced activation of the hippocampus, the part of the brain used to remember. The more activity in the frontal cortex, the better participants were at suppressing unwanted memories.
According to Waldhauser, this might be helpful for people suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, who often dwell on negative thoughts or traumatic events. He speculates that repressing them might help people cope better, because it could help them move on with their lives. And here I was thinking repression was a bad thing. If that’s true, perhaps that's why some victims of sexual abuse block out memories -- it may serve as a survival mechanism. Still, I’m guessing that if the emotions have never been dealt with, they might have to be tackled at some point in order to move forward.
Researcher Robin Edelstein, assistant psychology professor at the University of Michigan, studied victims of sexual abuse 15 years after their cases went to trial to see how many were willing to talk about what happened and whether they tended to block out their memories. "While avoiding things can be a helpful short-term strategy, not paying attention to certain things for extended periods of time might be bad for your mental health with consequences for your physical health. All the effort to avoid anxiety actually creates more anxiety later," explained Edelstein in a written statement.
Other research suggests that there may be a way to not necessarily forget a traumatic event, but simply downplay it in the brain, so it doesn’t cause as much distress. According to a study in PLoS ONE, there is a crucial six-hour window of opportunity right after a traumatic event where you can disrupt memory consolidation by distracting the brain with other mentally challenging tasks, like playing Tetris. The brain can only focus on so many things at once, and apparently playing Tetris can keep your mind from solidifying the event so it doesn’t wreak so much mental havoc later. Perhaps I’ll try that one out the next time I humiliate myself in public.