According to a new study that appears in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the key to forgetting could lie in simply changing the way we think about the “context” surrounding our memories.
As per reported by IFL SCIENCE, Context is everything that’s going on around a particular event. It has a large influence over how memories are “organised and retrieved” by the brain. For example, if you happen to have a bad experience after drinking too much tequila (itself a pretty effective memory eraser), then it’s likely that the very thought of taking another shot of the stuff will dig up unpleasant memories of that experience.
People who experience more serious distressing events can sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereby certain contextual cues cause them to relive painful memories. If sufferers can learn to dissociate these memories from their context, however, it may be possible to alleviate their PTSD.
To test whether this is possible, researchers from Princeton University and Dartmouth College subjected volunteers to a memory test in which they were shown a list of words that they were told either to memorise or forget. In between viewing each word, they were shown an image of a natural landscape, such as a mountain or a forest, in the hope that they would automatically associate the memory of the words with this contextual cue.
Results showed that those who had been told to remember the lists tended to replay the same neural patterns associated with context when recalling the words, indicating that the memory and its context had become intertwined in their brains.
However, those who did not remember the lists did not repeat this neural pattern when unsuccessfully attempting to recall the words, suggesting that the event and its context had not become entangled in their minds.
Lead researcher Jeremy Manning said: “For example, we might want to forget a traumatic event, such as soldiers with PTSD. Or we might want to get old information ‘out of our head,’ so we can focus on learning new material.”
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