Nav: Home

The memories you want to forget are the hardest ones to lose

August 15, 2007

CHAPEL HILL - Painful, emotional memories that people would most like to forget may be the toughest to leave behind, especially when memories are created through visual cues, according to a new study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"When you're watching the news on television and see footage of wounded soldiers in Iraq or ongoing coverage of national tragedies, it may stick with you more than a newspaper headline," said the study's lead author, Keith Payne, an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

It is adaptive to be able to intentionally forget neutral events such as wrong directions, a friend's outdated phone number or a switched meeting time. Intentional forgetting helps update memory with new information, Payne said.

But Payne and former psychology graduate student Elizabeth Corrigan found that even "mild" emotional events, like getting a bad grade on a test or a negative comment from a coworker, can be hard to forget. Their study, "Emotional constraints on intentional forgetting," appears in the September 2007 print issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

When people are trying to intentionally forget information, they need to mentally segregate that information and then block off the information they don't want to retrieve, Payne said.

Emotion undermines both of those steps. "You make a lot of connections between emotional events and other parts of your life, so it might be difficult to isolate them. As far as blocking retrieval of an unwanted event, emotion makes events very salient and therefore highly accessible," Payne said.

Their results contrast with previous studies of emotional events and intentional forgetting, but those studies used emotion-laden words as stimuli, like "death" and "sex." The UNC study took a new approach, asking 218 participants to react to photographs instead of text.

"The word 'murder,' for instance, may or may not make you afraid, but if you see a graphic, violent picture, it may be powerful enough emotionally to change the way you feel," Payne said.

The researchers found that their subjects could not intentionally forget emotional events as easily as mundane ones. They also found that both pleasant and unpleasant emotional memories were resistant to intentional forgetting.

The UNC findings contribute to understanding the ways that emotion constrains mental control and to the question of whether intentional forgetting can be helpful in coping with painful or traumatic experiences.

"Our findings add to accumulating evidence that emotion places limits on the ability to control the contents of the mind," Payne said. "Our results suggest that even a relatively mild emotional reaction can undermine intentional forgetting. But this doesn't necessarily mean that emotional memories can never be intentionally forgotten. If the motivation to forget is powerful enough, individuals might be able to overcome the effects of emotion by enlisting additional coping strategies."

A different study would be needed to examine what treatment and coping strategies might be effective in helping people voluntarily forget an unwanted memory, he added.
-end-
Web site: The study can be found online at http://www.sciencedirect.com.

Note: Payne can be reached on his cell phone (919) 951-9177 or by email payne@unc.edu. He will be in San Francisco at the American Psychological Association convention until Sunday, Aug. 19 but will be taking calls and checking email. After Aug. 19, Payne can be reached at (919) 962-2055 or by email.

College of Arts and Sciences contact: Kim Spurr, (919) 962-4093, spurrk@email.unc.edu
News Services contact: Clinton Colmenares, (919) 843-1991, clinton_colmenares@unc.edu

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Related Memories Articles:

Environmental 'memories' passed on for 14 generations
Scientists at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona and the Josep Carreras Leukaemia Research Institute and The Institute for Health Science Research Germans Trias i Pujol (IGTP) in Badalona, Spain, have discovered that the impact of environmental change can be passed on in the genes of tiny nematode worms for at least 14 generations -- the most that has ever been seen in animals.
Ingredients for lasting memories
Scientists at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics (CNCG) have found evidence that helps explain how long lasting cortical engrams are formed in the brain.
Using drugs to weaken traumatic memories
A potential new approach to treat posttraumatic stress disorder: After taking the antibiotic doxycycline, study participants remembered an unpleasant event considerably less, as experiments conducted by a team of researchers from the University Psychiatric Hospital and the University of Zurich reveal.
Smokers' memories could help them quit
Rather than inciting fear, anti-smoking campaigns should tap into smokers' memories and tug at their heartstrings, finds a new study by Michigan State University researchers.
New system for forming memories
Until now, the hippocampus was considered the most important brain region for forming and recalling memory, with other regions only contributing as subordinates.
Macaques, like humans, know how well they can recall memories
Researchers have pinpointed a brain region monkeys use to evaluate their ability to recall memories.
The rhythm that makes memories permanent
Every time we learn something new, the memory does not only need to be acquired, it also needs to be stabilized in a process called memory consolidation.
Building stress-resistant memories
Though it's widely assumed that stress zaps a person's ability to recall memory, it doesn't have that effect when memory is tested immediately after a taxing event, and when subjects have engaged in a highly effective learning technique, a new study reports.
How the brain makes new memories while preserving the old
Columbia scientists have developed a new mathematical model that helps to explain how the human brain's biological complexity allows it to lay down new memories without wiping out old ones -- illustrating how the brain maintains the fidelity of memories for years, decades or even a lifetime.
Sharing stories synchronizes group memories
People synchronize what they remember and what they forget after sharing memories with one another, according to Princeton University-led research.

Related Memories Reading:

Memories (Lang Leav)
by Lang Leav (Author)

Unlimited Memory: How to Use Advanced Learning Strategies to Learn Faster, Remember More and be More Productive
by Kevin Horsley (Author)

Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most
by Daniel G. Amen (Author)

Mosby's Pharmacology Memory NoteCards: Visual, Mnemonic, and Memory Aids for Nurses
by JoAnn Zerwekh MSN EdD RN (Author)

Learning and Memory
by Mark A. Gluck (Author), Eduardo Mercado (Author), Catherine E. Myers (Author)

As You Grow: A Modern Memory Book for Baby
by Korie Herold (Author), Paige Tate Select (Producer)

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief
by Joanna Rowland (Author), Thea Baker (Illustrator)

Sea of Memories
by Fiona Valpy (Author)

Memories of Home (The Memory Ranch Romances Book 1)
by Partridge & Pear Press

The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play
by Harry Lorayne (Author), Jerry Lucas (Author)

Best Science Podcasts 2018

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2018. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Dying Well
Is there a way to talk about death candidly, without fear ... and even with humor? How can we best prepare for it with those we love? This hour, TED speakers explore the beauty of life ... and death. Guests include lawyer Jason Rosenthal, humorist Emily Levine, banker and travel blogger Michelle Knox, mortician Caitlin Doughty, and entrepreneur Lux Narayan.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#492 Flint Water Crisis
This week we dig into the Flint water crisis: what happened, how it got so bad, what turned the tide, what's still left to do, and the mix of science, politics, and activism that are still needed to finish pulling Flint out of the crisis. We spend the hour with Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, a physician, scientist, activist, the founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, and author of the book "What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City".