Study Shows How Memories Can Be Intentionally Forgotten
Ever had your mood altered when that pleasant fragrance hit your aromatic senses and carried you right back to those sweet teenage memories in a snap – or a sudden, unpleasant smell took you right back to the memories better forgotten.
Our brain keeps associating things like visuals, sound bites, and smell spells with the events that we experience, in turn, creating memories. This happens to us all the time, mostly unknowingly. It plays a big role in strengthening our power to memorize things.
The whole, hugely popular concept of mnemonics is primarily based on this principle. It is a widely held thought that our brain depends pretty heavily on context which acts as an anchor to deeply establish the thoughts, so that they become strong memories. Most of the educational systems, at least at the primary level, support and propagate the system of employing context as a major tool to enable learning of the basics such as counting, memorizing tables etc. The context makes it easier and, at the same time, fun for the learner too.
Unfortunately, life is not all sunshine and rainbows; we all have bad memories too! A recent study conducted by Princeton and Dartmouth universities seems to have uncovered how our brain can find a way around it. The participants of the study were asked to learn the pre-defined lists. At the same time, they were passively being shown the images of various outdoor scenes such as beaches, mountains and forests.
The idea behind introducing the images was to give context to the items in the lists. Context is unique, differs from person to person, and hence, is hard to measure. In order to overcome this difficulty, the researchers introduced context in the form of the images.
Later, the participants were given remember or forget-cues. The researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanners to track how the images which were introduced as contextual representations rushed in or out of the participant’s brains depending upon what cue they were given as a part of the experiment.
The lead author of the study, assistant professor at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, Jeremy R. Manning said that this study helps us understand how we remember rather than how we forget.
This finding can prove helpful in a multitude of practical usage, especially in creating improved educational tools, learning a new thing or two, or helping the patients suffering from mental illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder etc.
While in the process of learning, sometimes we may learn incorrect concepts. In such cases, our brain uses its ability to unlearn the flawed concept and replace it with a new one. The context is altered to give rise to a better, improved context. When we try to learn something new, the context can prove very helpful in retention of the memory.
On the other hand, many soldiers who have undergone traumatic experiences, such as those witnessed in the wars of battle, may carry many unpleasant memories. The brain’s ability to alter the context can help such patients get a new sense of freedom from such haunting memories.
There could be many such ways in which our brain’s ability to intentionally forget memories can prove beneficial and improve the quality of our lives.