Remember your past mistakes

Neurologists found when the brain erases a memory

Learning new things or remembering events often requires a great deal of attention and mental effort. On the other hand, we prefer to distract ourselves from painful moments and events. However, a new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin shows that through focus and effort, we can purposely forget about negative memories.

Controlling thoughts and attention

To understand this process, it is important to note that memories are not static. As the scientists explain, this is a dynamic structure of the brain that is regularly updated and adapted through experience. We automatically save and forget information while we sleep.

In order to speed up the process of forgetting, previous research has advised reducing attention to the harmful information. For example, by distracting yourself from negative experiences or trying to consciously suppress the memories.

The surprising result of the scientists at the University of Texas now shows that we can, however, consciously control forgetting by drawing attention to unwanted memories.

"We can erase memories that trigger harmful reactions, such as traumatic experiences, so that we can respond appropriately in the future," said Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, one of the study authors and assistant professor of psychology at UT Austin.

The ability to consciously forget something

For their study, which was published in the scientific journal “Journal of Neuroscience”, the scientists use what is known as neuroimaging - a method to track patterns of brain activity. The researchers showed pictures of scenes and faces to a group of 24 young and healthy adults and instructed them to either remember or forget about each picture.

“Decades of research have shown that we have the ability to voluntarily forget something, but how exactly our brains do this is still being explored. Once we've figured out how memories are weakened and ways to control them, we can develop a treatment that will help people rid themselves of unwanted memories, ”explains Lewis-Peacock.

In the past, scientists believed that these processes of deliberate forgetting took place in the control structures of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, and long-term memory structures, such as the hippocampus. The Austin research team, however, focused on the sensory and perceptual areas of the brain. The scientists were particularly interested in the ventral temporal cortex and the patterns of activity there, which process complex visual stimuli.

Forgetting is more difficult than remembering

As the results show, the researchers seem to have focused on the right part of the brain. Their data could not only show that we have the ability to consciously control the process of forgetting, but also that deliberately forgetting requires greater brain activity in these sensory and perceptual areas than remembering things.

“Moderate brain activity is crucial for this forgetting mechanism. Too strong and it will strengthen the memory; too weak and you will not be forgotten, ”explains Tracy Wang, lead author of the study and PhD student in psychology at UT Austin. "What is important is that the intention to forget increases the activation of the memory, and when this activation reaches the optimal point it leads to experiences being forgotten later."

The results of the study also make it clear that pictures of scenes are easier to forget than pictures of faces. According to the researchers, this is due to the much more emotional information that is present in pictures of people.

Separation of painful experiences and feelings

These results are particularly important to neuroscientists because they enable people to separate themselves from painful experiences and feelings. However, more scientific work is needed in order to apply the information obtained from the laboratory experiment to everyday life.

"We have learned how these mechanisms in our brain react to different types of information and it will take much more research and replication of this work before we understand how we can use our ability to forget," says Lewis-Peacock.

This article was published by Business Insider in October 2019. It has now been reviewed and updated.