How can I forget something 1

This way you can try to forget negative memories more quickly

Unconsciously, forgetting works quite well for many. We keep forgetting something: the key, the appointment, the birthday. Anyone who often forgets things is considered to be unfocused and shaky, because in general forgetting is often associated with a lack of remembering, i.e. the lack of a thought process. But how nice would it be to be able to deliberately delete individual experiences from the brain? For example, the embarrassing appearance at the Christmas party; the pain about the broken flirtation, which was actually a bit more; the bad car accident last winter. Just like you can remove files from your laptop with a click of the trash can icon.

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“The German word 'vergessen' is based on the stem 'gessen' and originally expressed a movement in the direction of the speaker; so he 'gets' something. The prefix 'ver' turns it into the opposite. This means that forgetting is an active process in terms of the root of the word, ”explains Martin Korte, Professor of Cellular Neurobiology at the TU Braunschweig, in an article for the science magazine Spectrum of science. An American research team also used an experiment to find out that the processes of forgetting and remembering appear to be similar at the cellular level. This means that, in principle, people are not only able to consciously remember things, but also actively forget them.

Forgetting does not mean disappearing

In the context of psychological and neurological research, however, the term forgetting usually has a different meaning than the one we use in everyday life. When we talk about forgetting, we usually mean that we have literally lost information. But research shows that we have not lost the information as such, but can no longer find access. So it is there, we just don't know behind which brain door. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried were able to show that forgetting only makes access to various memories more difficult, but the connection between the nerve cells that store a memory, so to speak, remains. The head of the Department of Psychology (Cognition and Development) at the University of Regensburg, Karl-Heinz T. Bäuml, also takes this point of view: "Forgetting doesn't mean disappearing, of course."

So humans cannot really erase memories - but they can at least be relegated to the back of the neural sock drawer. And everyone can support the brain in this. "One possibility, for example, is to repeatedly call up related content from memory, which can lead to the unwanted memories themselves becoming increasingly difficult to call up," explains Bäuml. As a concrete example, he cites the many positive experiences that someone has every day in the office, for example, so that calling up the negative experience - such as the complaint from the supervisor - is made more difficult in the long term.

But what if there are no positive memories to contrast with the negative? “A second option is to replace the old, unwanted information with related new information. That means: looking ahead and making new, preferably positive experiences as quickly as possible, ”explains Bäuml. In this way the process can be promoted to send experiences that rob you of sleep and nerves into the synapses nirvana. “In order for us to forget something organically, the nerve networks have to change in such a way that an activity pattern, i.e. memory, can no longer be triggered. Sometimes contact points rebuild in such a way that the ability to evoke a thought pattern is lost, ”explains neuroscientist Henning Beck. Synapses and their connections to one another are the basis for the ability to remember things. These can either be strengthened or weakened so that people can remember certain things quickly and not others. “A brain region called the hippocampus acts as a kind of trainer for the nerve networks of the cerebrum. If a new impression is particularly surprising, the hippocampus repeatedly presents this activity pattern to the cerebrum until the nerve cells there have adapted to the new pattern. This gives them the ability to remember, ”says Beck, explaining the processes in the brain.

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Get out of the thought carousel

In purely theoretical terms, in order to forget something, a person would have to ensure that the synapses and their connections between the respective memories are weakened. To what extent and to what extent each individual is able to do so, however, has not yet been researched. In order to at least support the brain in this process, another tip from the psychologist Bäuml is: think of something else. Many a person will now roll their eyes to count the times when friends have already given this advice without it having taken effect. Sometimes you just sit too tight in the saddle of the horse in the thought carousel. No matter how hard you try, you go over and over again in your head how the boss yelled at you. “At this moment, the so-called basic settings network is active - a network of nerve cells in the back of the brain that is responsible for the mind wandering responsible is. That is why you shouldn't do monotonous activities such as endurance sports, in which this network is particularly active, ”explains Beck.

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The well-intentioned advice to think of something else is aimed at trying to get the stressful event out of focus. The other thoughts do not necessarily have to be profound; beautiful and positive memories of vacation experiences, the last Sunday outing with friends or the last party change the so-called inner context permanently and set positive accents in thinking. Another way could be to block the memory of the negative event: “Try not to let the unwanted information come into your consciousness in the first place. This can gradually lead to the fact that this content is really less often remembered, ”explains Bäuml. Easier said than done. The following trick can help: draw attention to objects in the room for a certain time, for example, so that the emerging, negative thought is pushed into the background, so to speak.

If it doesn't work alone

"The existing findings suggest that there is hardly any content that cannot be actively forgotten," Bäuml is of the opinion. However, experiments in which strong emotional stimuli play a major role are ruled out for ethical reasons. “It is ultimately still unclear whether active forgetting also works with really strong emotional memory content,” explains Bäuml. Because in people who suffer from trauma, the triggering event has burned itself in, so to speak. “When we find ourselves in a life-threatening or emotional emergency situation, the body not only releases stress hormones in order to provide maximum energy and to reduce all physical processes that are not necessary for immediate survival to a minimum. The memory centers of our brain are also running at full speed. Everything that is associated with the situation should be saved as precisely and sustainably as possible (while the retrieval of information that has already been saved is disturbed) ”, writes Martin Korte in his article. For example, people who feel that they cannot deal with a stressful memory on their own should seek professional help.

However, the effectiveness of the techniques mentioned for weakening negative memories and making them less accessible have not been adequately researched to allow any general statements to be made. There is no silver bullet for how people actively forget things - even if we seem to have the disposition of this ability. It is up to you to enter into a dialogue with yourself and to try out what works well for you personally. But there is still good news: the very intention of wanting to forget something already has a beneficial effect on the project. This is what the team of researchers led by Tracy H. Wang found out in an experiment.

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