Throughout our lives we accumulate memories we’d rather forget. For people who’ve experienced a serious trauma, such as combat experience, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, these memories can be more than unwelcome — they can be debilitating.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex process of memory. But there’s still a lot they don’t understand, including why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others do not.
Research into intentional forgetting has only been going on for about a decade. Prior to that, memory research revolved around retaining and improving memory. The topic of erasing or suppressing memories is controversial. Recent research into “forgetting pills” is frequently challenged on the grounds of medical ethics. For some people though, it could be a lifesaver. Keep reading to learn what we know so far about intentionally forgetting things.
1. Identify your triggers
Memories are cue-dependent, which means they require a trigger. Your bad memory isn’t constantly in your head; something in your present environment reminds you of your bad experience and triggers the recall process.
Some memories have only a few triggers, like particular smells or images, whereas others have so many that they are hard to avoid. For example, someone with a combat-related trauma might be triggered by loud noises, the smell of smoke, closed doors, particular songs, items on the side of the road, and so on.
Identifying your most common triggers can help you take control of them. When you consciously recognize a trigger, you can practice suppressing the negative association. The more often you suppress this association, the easier it will become. Researchers believe you can also reassociate a trigger with a positive or safe experience, thereby breaking the link between the trigger and the negative memory.
2. Talk to a therapist
Take advantage of the process of memory reconsolidation. Every time you recall a memory, your brain rewires that memory. After a trauma, wait a few weeks for your emotions to die down and then actively recall your memory in a safe space. Some therapists advise you to talk about the experience in detail once or twice per week. Others prefer that you write out a narrative of your story and then read it during therapy.
Forcing your brain to repeatedly reconstruct your painful memory will allow you to rewrite your memory in a way that reduces the emotional trauma. You won’t be erasing your memory, but when you do remember, it will be less painful.
3. Memory suppression
For years, researchers have been investigating a theory of memory suppression called the think/no-think paradigm. They believe that you can use your brain’s higher functions, like reasoning and rationality, to consciously interrupt the process of memory recall.
Basically, this means that you practice intentionally shutting down your painful memory as soon as it starts. After doing this for several weeks or months, you can (theoretically) train your brain not to remember. You basically weaken the neural connection that allows you to call up that particular memory.
4. Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is a type of behavioral therapy widely used in the treatment of PTSD, which can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares. While working with a therapist, you safely confront both traumatic memories and common triggers so that you can learn to cope with them.
Exposure therapy, sometimes called prolonged exposure, involves frequently retelling or thinking about the story of your trauma. In some cases, therapists bring patients to places that they have been avoiding because of PTSD. A multisite clinical trial of exposure therapy among female service members found that exposure therapy was more successful than another common therapy at reducing PTSD symptoms.
Propranolol is a blood pressure medication from the class of medications known as beta blockers, and it’s often used in the treatment of traumatic memories. Propranolol, which is also used to treat performance anxiety, stops the physical fear response: shaky hands, sweating, racing heart, and dry mouth.
Recent double-blind trials in 60 people with PTSD found that a dose of propranolol given 90 minutes before the start of a memory recall session (telling your story), once a week for six weeks, provided a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms.
This process takes advantage of the memory reconsolidation process that happens when you recall a memory. Having propranolol in your system while you recall a memory suppresses the emotional fear response. Later, people are still able to remember the details of the event, but it no longer feels devastating and unmanageable.
Propranolol has a very high safety profile, which means it’s generally considered safe. Psychiatrists will often prescribe this medication off-label. (It’s not yet FDA-approved for the treatment of PTSD.) You can inquire about local psychiatrists in your area and see if they use this treatment protocol in their practices.
Memory is the process in which your mind records, stores, and recalls information. It is an extremely complex process that is still not well understood. Many theories about how different aspects of memory work are still unproven and debated.
Researchers do know that there are several different types of memory, all of which depend on a complex network of neurons (you have about 100 billion) located in many different parts of your brain.
The first step in memory creation is the recording of information into the short-term memory. Researchers have known for several decades that this process of encoding new memories relies heavily on a small area of the brain called the hippocampus. It’s there that the vast majority of information you obtain throughout the day comes and goes, staying for less than a minute.
Sometimes though, your brain flags particular pieces of information as important and worthy of being transferred into long-term storage through a process called memory consolidation. It is widely recognized that emotion plays a major role in this process.
For decades, researchers believed that consolidation was a one-time thing. Once you stored a memory, it would always be there. Recent research, however, has proven that this is not the case.
Think of a particular memory like a sentence on a computer screen. Every time you recall a memory you have to rewrite that sentence, firing specific neurons in a specific order, as if typing out the words. This is a process known as reconsolidation.
Sometimes, when you type too fast, you make mistakes, changing a word here or there. Your brain can also make mistakes when it is reconstructing a memory. During the reconstruction process your memories become malleable, which means it is possible to adjust or manipulate them.
Certain techniques and medications can exploit the reconsolidation process, effectively removing, for example, the feelings of fear associated with a particular memory.
It is generally understood that people remember emotional memories more vividly than boring memories. This has to do with a small region deep inside your brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala plays an important role in emotional response. Researchers believe that the amygdala’s emotional response heightens your sensory awareness, which means you input and encode memories more effectively.
The ability to sense and remember fear played an essential role in the evolution of the human race. It’s for this reason that traumatic memories are so hard to forget.
Recent research has discovered that good and bad memories are actually rooted in different parts of the amygdala, in separate groups of neurons. This proves that your mind physically reconstructs good and bad memories differently.
Memories of pain and trauma are difficult to forget, but there are ways to manage them. Although research is progressing quickly, there are no drugs available yet that can erase particular memories.
With some hard work, however, you can find a way to prevent bad memories from continuously popping into your head. You can also work to remove the emotional element of those memories, making them much easier to tolerate.