Can We Learn How to Forget?
Neuroscientists begin to understand how the brain controls its own memory center
After reflexively reaching out to grab a hot pan falling from the stove, you may be able to withdraw your hand at the very last moment to avoid getting burned. That is because the brain’s executive control can step in to break a chain of automatic commands. Several new lines of evidence suggest that the same may be true when it comes to the reflex of recollection—and that the brain can halt the spontaneous retrieval of potentially painful memories.
Within the brain, memories sit in a web of interconnected information. As a result, one memory can trigger another, making it bubble up to the surface without any conscious effort. “When you get a reminder, the mind’s automatic response is to do you a favor by trying to deliver the thing that’s associated with it,” says Michael Anderson, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge. “But sometimes we are reminded of things we would rather not think about.”
Humans are not helpless against this process, however. Previous imaging studies suggest that the brain’s frontal areas can dampen the activity of the hippocampus, a crucial structure for memory, and therefore suppress retrieval. In an effort to learn more, Anderson and his colleagues recently investigated what happens after the hippocampus is suppressed. Read more!