From earworms to unwanted thoughts: Scientists discover you can control what you forget

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Many of us have experienced the frustration of not being able to shake off a persistent thought or memory. However, did you know that people have the ability to control what and how we forget? Cognitive neuroscientists are uncovering the mechanisms of forgetting and its implications for neurocognitive disorders, presenting new findings that shed light on the fascinating process of forgetting.

“It may sound surprising that people can control what and how they forget,” says Marie Banich of the University of Colorado, Boulder. “But control over working memory is critical for switching between and re-prioritizing tasks. So in many ways, it is not surprising that we have control over the ability to remove information from the focus of our thoughts.”

She explains that intentionally forgetting no-longer-relevant information is beneficial but requires effort.

“We’ve found that intentionally forgetting no-longer-relevant information from the mind is beneficial, but it doesn’t happen automatically,” adds Sara Festini of the University of Tampa in a media release.

Banich’s interest in studying forgetting was sparked by personal experiences and the realization of how intrusive thoughts can impact individuals with depression and related disorders. She explains that while the content may vary across different disorders, the process of thoughts becoming the focus of attention is similar. Banich and her team have been working on tracking the removal of thoughts from working memory using fMRI imaging, machine learning, and other techniques.

Dementia, Alzheimer's, brain puzzle
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Through their research, Banich and her colleagues have identified three distinct mechanisms by which people remove information from their working memory: replacement, suppression, and clearing of thoughts. They have also identified four brain networks associated with each mechanism. These findings open avenues for investigating individual differences in forgetting and potentially helping those who struggle with controlling their thoughts.

Efficient forgetting involves suppressing thoughts rather than replacing them due to proactive interference. Festini’s studies have shown that voluntarily removing information from working memory reduces detrimental memory interference. However, forgetting requires effort and is different from simply discontinuing the processing of information. The research also suggests that older adults may have impaired directed forgetting, compared to younger adults, but explicit forget cues can still help mitigate interference in the working memory of both groups.

While the clinical applications of this research are still being explored, it has the potential to inform the understanding and treatment of various disorders. PTSD, major depressive disorder, and ADHD are among the conditions that could benefit from a deeper understanding of how forgetting works. Targeted forgetting may help individuals with PTSD suppress specific memories, although the process may paradoxically involve identifying and thinking about the memory before suppressing it.

The ongoing research in the field of forgetting offers hope for better understanding attention, focus, and memory interference. By unlocking the mysteries of forgetting, scientists aim to develop interventions that can improve the lives of individuals with neurocognitive disorders.

Researchers presented their findings at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) annual meeting in San Francisco.

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