Memory – Recall – Forgetting

Friday, August 14th, 2009 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Science has progressed to such an extent that it understands, in broad-brush outline, how memories are stored. However, how memories are lost is, if not quite a mystery, much less well modeled and mapped than the process of long term potentiation which enables memory.

While the process of myelination is perhaps to some small degree reversible, it seems that this process is overwhelmed by the myelination of other memory-traces. Memories are lost, it seems, through interference rather than decay. Evidence to support this comes from the fact that recognition is easier than recollection, and that being in a similar situation aids recall.

A forgotten memory, especially one once remembered well, is more likely hard to retrieve than gone. The ‘problem’ with forgetting isn’t that you fail to be reminded, it’s that the particular event you’re looking for is drowned out by the flood of other memories of which you’re also reminded, all clamouring for your attention.

Forgetting is a failure to select the right one of competing memories more than it is a failure to store or retrieve.

This is why the advice given last week on how to improve recall (essentially, think of as many ancillary and related things as possible, put yourself into as similar a mindset as you can) works: it increases the strength of the desired memory. Helps it to stand out against the crowd of other memory traces.

Deliberately Forgetting

If you’ve thought about something often enough that you’ve decided you’d like to forget it, it’s probably going to be a difficult job to do so. That ‘something’ has likely been pondered by you many times, recalled and refreshed so often that the connections between the neurons making it up will be heavily potentiated, sheathed in myelin and difficult to change. The whole reason you’re likely to want to forget something is because you keep being reminded of it already. This is a strong signal and it’s going to take a long time to decay.

Understanding forgetting more as the generation of competing memories rather than the decay of old ones, however, gives us a better perspective on the process by which time heals, and ways to speed it along it’s way.

A common reason why an especially troubling memory is so persistent is that recalling it brings back vivid, often unpleasant emotions. As we explained during lap one, an event which is highly emotionally charged causes the long term potentiation’s efficiency to increase. The fact of the strong emotion brought about by the recall makes the refreshing effect stronger. Each time you are reminded of the event, you not only provoke the unpleasant or unhelpful emotion, the fact you are doing so makes you more likely to be reminded of the event again later.

On the whole it’s going to be easier not to forget it but instead to just change the emotional significance of a memory. Firstly, because nobody cares about being constantly reminded of that funny thing, but also because a reduced emotional response reduces the chances of further inadvertent recall later. Opening up competing memory-traces to other less emotionally negative things is in fact the key to stop being troubled by memories.

Changing The Emotional Significance Of A Memory

The key to changing the emotional significance of a memory isn’t to try to forget. The act of trying to forget will just make you remember more. Instead the key is to deliberately remember, but to also distort that memory in a way which reduces the emotional impact.

NLP practitioners suggest various ways to do this. Recall the event as though you are watching it on TV rather than through your own eyes. Recall it in fast-motion, or made small and distant, or with a comedy sound-track. By strengthening the pathways activating less negative emotions you will reduce the flow of emotion toward those negative sources.

So here’s the method: Sit down, relax, take the time to drop down into a suggestible state. Then visualize the events you’re trying to forget. You want to distort what you see though. See it as though it’s not happening to you, but projected on a screen at the other end of a large hallway, in comedy fast-motion, with a clownish trombone sound-track. Watch it clearly, as vividly as you can given all those distortions.

This should reduce the emotional significance of the event. Perform this meditation several times, over several days, and soon you’ll find the meditation itself, and the reminders of the event you find in daily life, provoke less and less of a reaction from your emotional systems. Eventually, the event should become so trivial and mundane that you’ll stop being reminded of it all the time.

Solve Outstanding Issues

However, if you still owe money or favours or expect something or feel like you need to tell someone something, that fact will keep popping up into your head. If you need to resolve the matter, you should resolve it before you try to forget.


Of course, when you find that you’re thinking about the thing which you are trying to forget without deliberate distortion, you need to divert your mind onto something else. Try and have something worthwhile handy to distract yourself with, a project you want to plan or topic you like to discuss, perhaps skill you’re trying to learn. When you find yourself thinking of the forbidden thing, turn your thoughts instead towards that handy distraction. This will have the benefit of also progressing your side project and giving you valuable practice at honing your concentration!