People have long tried tricks to aid their memories. One of the most useful of these so-called mnemonic devices, I’ve found, involves associating names with word pictures or with other people you know well. I was just at a party, for example, and met a man who shared a last name with someone I’ve known for a while. I am sure I would have forgotten his name had I not associated it with that other person. But two days later, I remembered the connection and drew his name from the memory bank.
Perhaps my favorite mnemonic was one my daughter brought home in kindergarten. She came home one day singing the Happy Days theme song. To my delight, this song had been her teacher’s choice for helping the kids remember the days of the week. Other mnemonics involve fitting familiar words to unfamiliar acronyms. The fictitious name “Roy G Biv” helps people remember the order of the colors in a rainbow: ROYGBIV. (Or you can just think, “Rake over your grass because it’s verdant,” but that seems a little convoluted.)
As much time and attention as has been paid to helping people remember stuff, however, I’ve never seen a list of tactics for helping people forget. Forgetting is essential to our ability to think, to remember what is important to us, and to remain calm and happy. I wrote about the power of forgetting in the January/February 2012 Scientific American Mind (see “Trying to Forget”). In reporting that story, I collected ideas for ways to wipe things you don’t need or want from your brain.
I am not sure what to call these forgetting tactics. The word “mnemonic” comes from mnemonikos, which means “of memory” in ancient Greek, and evokes Mnemosyne ("remembrance"), goddess of memory in Greek mythology. To my knowledge, the Greeks did not create a god of forgetting, and none of the English words related to the phenomenon have the right ring to them. So I’ll borrow from the French verb, oublier, “to forget,” and call my tips on forgetting “oublionics” for want of a term with fewer syllables. Whatever you want to call them, here are tips for forgetting your troubles along with the random clutter piling up in your brain.
1. Shove the thought away. When you are reminded of something you don’t want to think about, just refuse to go there. Let your mind go blank rather than allowing it to make the connection. Sound ridiculously simple? Research shows that many, if not most, of us can will ourselves to forget in this way. The engine of such suppression is your prefrontal cortex—the same region of the brain that puts brakes on inappropriate actions. But just as some people are better at blocking bad behavior than others, some are more proficient at memory suppression than others. If you turn out to have loose reins on your brain, you might need to practice (see #2) or to use one of the other tricks.
2. Push it back again—and again. If you want to boost your chances of forgetting something for good, shove it out of consciousness on a daily basis. In a month, it might be gone, if modern psychology experiments are any guide. (Freud argued that such repressed memories would come back to haunt us, but the jury is still out on this idea.) Over a longer period, practicing this mental block might hone your skill. People who have had to frequently block a traumatic memory—loss of a parent, say, or their house burning down—to prevent it from overwhelming them score higher on tests of memory suppression than do people who have been lucky enough to have avoided significant suffering. One explanation for this result is that practicing suppression over the years makes you better at it.
3. Think of something else. Rather than just willing an upsetting memory into the dustbin, replace it with a nicer idea. So if seeing a Hawaiian lei reminds you of your ex drunk at a party, try to link the lei with images of a sandy beach instead. People who struggle to block memories—a group that usually includes people who tend toward rumination or who suffer from depression—have more success forgetting unwanted recollections if they find good substitutes for what they want to put out of their minds.
4. Prepare for shutdown. Thinking about the need to block associations ahead of time can boost your ability to do just that. Even a second of advance warning can give your brain added inhibitory power, research suggests. So if you have to see someone who you think might bring back a difficult period in your life, tell yourself before the date that you’ll be halting these thoughts before they reach consciousness. The mental barricades you erect will be sturdier with a little advance notice.
5. Just do it. When you sense a reminder of something bad coming on, do something to distract you. Anything. Pick up the phone. Walk around the block. Stomp your foot. Say hello to a passerby. In one study, scientists found that pressing an enter key at the moment of recall triggered forgetting.
6. Study. If your mind is awash in clutter, one of the best ways to clear it out is to reinforce what you do want to keep. When you study particular information, to learn it better, you automatically forget closely related material. This phenomenon, called retrieval-induced forgetting, efficiently tidies your mental closet.
7. See it another way. Sometimes we are upset because we are interpreting a particular situation in the worst possible light. If you can find way to see the same experience more positively, you may be inadvertently inducing forgetting. That is, by reinforcing the positive you are automatically toning down the negative in your mind.
8. Walk through a doorway. Remarkably, this simple act closes the door on what happened just before. See "Why Walking through a Doorway Makes You Forget."
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