Scientists in a collaboration from the University of Birmingham and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit Cambridge have published a paper in Nature Neuroscience showing the act of trying to remember may make you forget.
The work carried out is the first ever to isolate the adaptive forgetting mechanism in the human brain. 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.
The participants of the study were shown a selection of images. Following this, their brain activity was monitored in an 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.
One of the lead researchers, Dr Anderson, highlighted that this shows that forgetting is not a passive process: “our research reveals that people are more engaged than they realised in shaping what they remember of their lives.”
He went on to explain that the research “could tell us more about selective memory and even self deception.” His colleague, Dr Wimber, also points out that the act of forgetting can be “incredibly useful when trying to overcome a negative memory from our past.”
Additionally, this mechanism during 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.
The researchers also point out that despite genetic differences, all brains are capable of inducing varying degrees of this forgetting mechanism. Similarly the findings are not restricted to specific memory types.