Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Knocking a Hole in ‘Senior Moment’ – Study Says We
Freud was correct: in the same way we control our
motor impulses, we can control our memory
July 6, 2011 - Have you heard the saying “You only
remember what you want to remember”? Well, maybe it was not just a
senior citizen making an excuse for a lost fact. Now there is evidence
that it may well be correct. Research from Lund University in Sweden
shows that we can train ourselves to forget things.
The assumption that human beings can control and
intentionally forget unwanted memories has been controversial ever since
Freud asserted it at the beginning of the 20th century.
researcher Gerd Thomas Waldhauser has shown in neuroimaging studies that
Freud was correct in his assumptions: in the same way as we can control
our motor impulses (we can for example rapidly instruct the brain not to
catch a cactus which is falling from a table), we can control our
Waldhauser’s tests are carried out in a laboratory
environment where volunteers are asked to practice forgetting, or
attempting to forget, facts. Through EEG measurements, Waldhauser shows
that the same parts of the brain are activated when we restrain a motor
impulse and when we suppress a memory.
And, just as we can practice
restraining motor impulses, we can also train ourselves to repress
memories, i.e. to forget.
Waldhauser points out several situations in which
forgetting could be helpful.
● People suffering from depression often dwell on negative thoughts
which might best be repressed or forgotten in order for the individual
to emerge from the depression.
● The same thing goes for people with post-traumatic stress disorder;
the trauma makes it difficult for the affected person to act rationally
and to resolve his or her situation.
But the possible consequences of a deliberate
repression of memories are still not clearly established.
“We know that ‘forgotten’ or repressed feelings
often manifest themselves as physiological reactions”, says Waldhauser,
who is careful to point out that the volunteers were trained to forget
neutral information in a controlled laboratory environment. Training to
forget a traumatic event would be more complex.
Waldhauser has not only shown that we can
deliberately forget things. Through EEG measurements, he has also
managed to capture the exact moment when the memory is inhibited, that
is when the forgetfulness is imposed.
The inhibition of memory eases off after a few
hours. But the more often information is suppressed, the more difficult
it becomes to retrieve it, as Waldhauser has shown through studies in a
“If the memories have been suppressed over a long
period of time, they could be extremely difficult to retrieve”, says
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