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Can we get better at forgetting?

Benedict Carey writes:

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 be somehow submerged amid the brain’s many other dimming bad memories?

Emotions play a role. Scenes, sounds and sensations leave a deeper neural trace if they stir a strong emotional response; this helps you avoid those same experiences in the future. 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 way to bury, or at least reshape, the vast majority of their worst moments. Could that process be harnessed or somehow optimized?

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 as it turns out, 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. [Continue reading…]

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