The New York Times

The Joy of Letting Things Go

Whatever its other properties, memory is a reliable troublemaker, especially when navigating its stockpile of embarrassments and moral stumbles. Ten minutes into an important job interview and here come screenshots from a past disaster: the spilled latte, the painful attempt at humor. Two dates into a warming relationship and up come flashbacks of an earlier, abusive partner. The bad timing is one thing. But why can’t those events somehow be submerged amid the brain’s many other dimming bad memories? Memory is protective, holding on to red flags so they can be waved at you later, to guide your future behavior. But forgetting is protective, too. Most people find a Perhaps. In the past decade or so, brain scientists have begun to piece together how memory degrades and forgetting happens. A new study, published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that some things can be intentionally relegated to oblivion, although the method for doing so is slightly counterintuitive. For the longest time, forgetting was seen as a passive process of decay and the enemy of learning. But forgetting is a dynamic ability, crucial to memory retrieval, mental stability and maintaining one’s sense of identity. That’s because remembering is a dynamic process. At a biochemical level, memories are not pulled from the shelf like stored videos but pieced together — reconstructed — by the brain. “When we recall something, the act of recalling activates a biochemical process that can solidify and reorganize the memory that is stored,” said Andre Fenton, a neuroscientist at New York University. This process can improve memory accuracy in the long term. But activating a memory also makes it temporarily fragile and vulnerable to change. This is where intentional forgetting comes in. It’s less about erasing than editing: incrementally revising, refocusing and potentially dimming the central incident of the memory. To intentionally forget is to remember differently, on purpose. Importantly, for scientists and therapists, intentional forgetting may also be an ability that can be practiced and deliberately strengthened. In the new study, a team led by Tracy Wang, a postdoctoral psychology fellow at the University of Texas, Austin, had 24 participants sit in a brain-imaging machine while they conducted a memory test. Wang’s co-authors were Jarrod Lewis-Peacock of the University of Texas and Katerina Placek of the University of Pennsylvania. In the experiment, each subject studied a series of some 200 images, a mix of faces and scenes, and identified the faces as male or female, and the scenes as indoor or outdoor. Each image appeared for a few seconds, then disappeared, at which point the participant was asked to either remember or forget it; after a few seconds delay, the next image appeared. The brain scanner focused on activity in the ventral temporal cortex and the sensory cortex, regions that are especially active when a person focuses mental attention on simple images such as these. After the participants finished, they were given a short rest and then a test. They looked at a series of images — ones they’d seen earlier and ones they hadn’t — and rated how confident they were at having seen each one. They scored well: They recalled 50 to 60 percent of the images they’d been instructed to remember and had successfully forgotten about 40 percent of the images they tried to erase from memory. The payoff came with the imaging results. When a subject’s brain activity — a measure of internal mental attention — was especially high or especially low, it typically corresponded to a failed attempt to forget an image. A concentrated effort to forget an unwanted memory did not help dim it, nor did mentally looking the other way. Rather, there seemed to be a sweet spot — neither too little mental attention, nor too much — that allowed a memory to come to mind and then fade, at least partly, of its own accord. You have to remember, just a little, to forget. “This suggests a new route to successful forgetting,” the authors concluded. “To forget a memory, its mental representation should be enhanced to trigger memory weakening.” Lewis-Peacock said: “When people were successful at doing this, there was a significant drop in their recognition confidence of images. Whether a person’s intent is to weaken memories as a part of therapy, or to change them or link them to other things as a part of daily living, this finding speaks directly to that.”

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