We can forget it for you wholesale

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2011

Via Technovelgy, some research that supports one of Freud’s more controversial assumptions, namely that we can choose to forget things we’d rather not remember:

Waldhauser’s tests are carried out in a laboratory environment where volunteers are asked to practise forgetting, or attempting to forget facts. Through EEG measurements, Waldhauser shows that the same parts of the brain are activated when we restrain a motor impulse and when we suppress a memory. And just as we can practise restraining motor impulses, we can also train ourselves to repress memories, i.e. to forget.

Waldhauser points out several situations in which forgetting could be helpful. People suffering from depression often dwell on negative thoughts which might best be repressed or forgotten in order for the individual to emerge from the depression. The same thing goes for people with post-traumatic stress disorder; the trauma makes it difficult for the affected person to act rationally and to resolve his or her situation. But the possible consequences of a deliberate repression of memories are still not clearly established.

“We know that ‘forgotten’ or repressed feelings often manifest themselves as physiological reactions”, says Waldhauser, who is careful to point out that the volunteers were trained to forget neutral information in a controlled laboratory environment. Training to forget a traumatic event would be more complex.

Waldhauser has not only shown that we can deliberately forget things. Through EEG measurements, he has also managed to capture the exact moment when the memory is inhibited, that is when the forgetfulness is imposed.

Great news, right? Well, that depends on whether you want to forget things permanently or not:

… the more often information is suppressed, the more difficult it becomes to retrieve it, as Waldhauser has shown through studies in a laboratory environment.

“If the memories have been suppressed over a long period of time, they could be extremely difficult to retrieve”, says Waldhauser.

And no word as to what sort of effect wholesale memory suppression might have on the psyche. I guess I’ll have to put off erasing my mid-teens until I can be sure I won’t a) lose the good stuff I want to keep or b) go postal.