Can we actually suppress a memory? That has long been a topic of controversy among experts of the brain: neurologists and psychologists. But a new study shines a new light on the subject. Researchers in Colorado have found that people can actually learn to forget. They can banish from memory an image that causes them distress.
This amazing finding may do more than end the controversy about whether we have control over our memories. It could lead to valuable ways to treat depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other emotional illnesses.
A traumatic event can stay with someone for life. Painful memories can severely injure one’s quality of life and ability to lead a social existence. The mind is a powerful instrument and dictates how people live. This new study suggests that we can unlock the door to the part of our mind that stores memories and consciously erases a few.
Each volunteer was asked to memorize 40 pairs of photographs. One photo in each pair was a person’s face. The other photo was a disturbing image, such as an injured solider, a car crash, or an electric chair. The volunteers looked at the pictures long enough so that the images were assigned to memory.
Then each person was placed in an MRI brain scanner. This time, they were shown only the photos with people’s faces. Half the people were asked to remember the matching, disturbing image. Half of them were asked to try their hardest to forget the matching image. Each person did this a dozen times for each picture.
At the end, psychologists found that 71% of people asked to recall the bad images could still do so. But only 53% of people asked to forget them could remember them. They had no trouble recalling the photos they were asked to remember — only the photos they were asked to forget.
And so there was the clue: suppressing a memory by actively forgetting it could give people control over a memory. By studying the brain, researchers saw that the prefrontal cortex was more active when people were trying to suppress memories. They also saw less activation in the visual cortex, which is needed to remember an image.
This finding may help us understand the brain more than ever before, and pave the road to medications that could shove memories away and them keep them that way.