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Trying too hard to remember makes it easier to forget

Simply trying to remember something can make you forget other things, researchers have found.

The study, combined work by the University of Birmingham and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences unit in Cambridge, was published in Nature Neuroscience. It aims at isolating the the forgetting mechanism of the human brain.

Oxford University science students’ magazine Bang! has the details.

Using brain imaging the team were able to show that the mechanism of recalling memories is carried out by the suppression of the unique cortical patterns which underlie competing memories. Using this mechanism, remembering alters which memories of our past remain accessible.

Participants were shown a selection of images and their brain activity monitored by MRI scanner while they were asked to recall memories based on the images.

Four selected memory retrieval tasks were carried out, which became progressively more vivid with each trial. As the trials continued, the competing memories were less well recalled suggesting an active suppression was taking place.

“People are used to thinking of forgetting as something passive,” one of the lead researchers, Michael Anderson from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit Cambridge, said. “Our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realize in shaping what they remember of their lives. The idea that the very act of remembering can cause forgetting is surprising, and could tell us more about selective memory and even self deception.”

Anderson’s colleague, Maria Wimber, from the University of Birmingham, said that the discovery could help treat traumatised people.

“Forgetting is often viewed as a negative thing, but of course, it can be incredibly useful when trying to overcome a negative memory from our past,” sage said. So there are opportunities for this to be applied in areas to really help people.” 

Additionally, the mechanism of memory recall could be highly significant for the judicial process. If a witnesses is repeatedly questioned and has to continuously recall a particular memory, this may cause forgetfulness and could be considered suspicious.

Bill Condie

Bill Condie

Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.

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