Imagine if it were possible to completely forget a bad memory. No longer would you be tormented by memories of a break-up, humiliating occurrences, or traumatic experiences. Think of what your brain would be free to do once it's no longer held down by bad memories of the past. Science may one day be able to make this a reality, based on the results from a recent study on memory suppression.

The study involved showing the participants two photographs and then asking them to purposely forget one. The researchers then used an MRI to see how participants suppressed the visual content of memories, and to see if suppressed content had unconscious influences. The findings of the report show that the participants had overwhelming success in purposely forgetting visual objects. It seemed that willfully trying to forget an object actually altered the way it was represented in the mind. According to Live Science, Michael Anderson, a researcher involved in the project, described forgetting an object as virtually shutting down the parts of the brain that would normally play a role in seeing that object. This is done in order to keep the memory from entering consciousness. “The side-effect of doing this is that whatever memory traces of the coffee cup were there, they are weakened, and later on, when you have to detect the cup … you find it just a bit harder,” Anderson explained.

The eventual goal of this project is to help people who have experienced trauma repress that memory. However, researchers argue that forgetting an emotionally strong memory may not be as easy as forgetting a visual image. “I certainly don’t think it’s something that you can do in one shot. I think you have to keep at it," Anderson said. Researchers are keen to understand how much of an effect time has on a person’s ability to suppress a memory. In the experiment, participants were questioned quite soon after they had seen the object. Scientists also want to explore how easily participants may be able to forget memories from their own personal experiences, which have spent a longer amount of time in their consciousness. In a future study, researchers plan to see if this has any effect on the experiments outcome.

Source: Gagnepain P, Henson RN, Anderson MC. Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence via targeted cortical inhibition. PNAS. 2014