How Does Memory Work and How to Forget Things On Purpose?

Memory is the recording and recall of information. Memory is not a single function, and it does not exist in one specific place in your brain. Memory, rather, occurs across multiple regions of your brain–including the hippocampus, thalamus, and cortex–and works together to record and recall your life experiences.

So How does Memory Actually Work?

We know that there are three basic types of Memory: Sensory Memory, Short-Term Memory (STM) & Long-Term Memory (LTM).

Sensory memory is our ability to keep sensory information readily available for processing without effort or attention. It lasts up to half a second. For example, when you see something out of the corner of your eye but decide it’s not worth your full attention, the information goes from Sensory Memory to more short-term memory.

Short-term memory is a holding area for information in our conscious awareness. STM lasts only about 30 seconds before we forget what we have been focusing on. It can hold up to seven items at a time and transfers that information into Long-Term Memory when you stop paying attention to it or ignore it. This is why your teacher was always telling you to pay attention! Information from Short-Term Memory will go into long-term memory if repeated eight times, explaining why children learn things much faster than adults do.

Multiple Memory Processes

While short-term memories don’t last long in the brain, some are passed along to our long-term memory, where there is limitless space. Memory retrieval is the process of recalling our memories. Sights and sounds in our environment can trigger our brain to retrieve a long-term memory, even if we’d rather not remember it. Memory also involves encoding, storing, and retrieving information on long-term memory. Memory isn’t made up of a single part of your brain but several regions working together to record and recall our experiences–including the hippocampus, thalamus, and cortex.

Our senses collect all of this information from our environment every day: sights, smells, sounds, and more we’ve encountered since birth. Memory retrieval is the process of recalling our memories. Sights and sounds in our environment can trigger our brain to retrieve a long-term memory, even if we’d rather not remember it. Memory retrieval is the process of recalling our memories. Sights and sounds in our environment can trigger our brain to retrieve a long-term memory, even if we’d rather not remember it. Memory also involves encoding, storing, and retrieving information on long-term memory.

Purposefully Forget Things

All memory is stored as a combination of physical changes and chemicals in the brain. This means that there are different ways you can affect your memories—both good and bad.

The ability to forget something intentionally is called “selective memory suppression.” Not only exists but has been observed in other animals, too, such as rats and fruit flies. In humans, forgetting may be more common than previously assumed, especially among those with psychological disorders such as PTSD or a social anxiety disorder (SAD).

Memory suppression demonstrates how the conscious mind holds power over memory because it can close information out at any time. While some fear that suppressing memories will cause them to fade away entirely, selective forgetting usually doesn’t work this way. The truth is that unwanted memories can return unexpectedly, sometimes in full force.

Why Would You Want to Forget Memories?

Suppose your memory of something is causing you distress—either because it’s a negative experience or because of the negative emotions associated with it—you might want to forget about it on purpose. But why would we ever want to do this? There are several reasons:

To Protect Yourself —Unwanted memories may remind and torment us, and certain types of people or events can trigger some. If there’s a memory that causes you to stress regularly, you might want to eliminate it so that you’re no longer reminded every time you think about it. If someone has or wronged you, suppressing memories of them can help protect your peace of mind.

To Protect Others —The memories we hold affect those around us, including family and friends. Some people may experience guilt or nightmares associated with traumatic events they’ve witnessed or even caused. These types of memories are difficult to deal with for everyone involved, so sometimes suppressing the memory is best for all parties involved.

To Avoid Painful Reminders —We all know the saying that “time heals all wounds.” This adage holds in many cases, but some memories are very difficult to forget no matter how much time has passed since an event occurred. Maybe you avoid calling a certain number because it reminds you of an ex-lover who broke your heart, or maybe you had a traumatic experience and can’t bring yourself to visit a place that brings back memories. Either way, there are certain reminders you’d rather avoid.

To Avoid Being Stuck in the Past —Trying to forget about traumatic experiences is difficult enough without having your mind call them up at all hours of the day and night or without triggering memories popping into your head when you least expect them. This is especially true for those with PTSD, where memories never seem to fade completely away as they do for other people.

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Some unpleasant memories pop up on their own while we sleep or during exercise, or even while we’re experiencing something new and exciting. Since we check out when we sleep, this kind of memory suppression will not affect normal daily life.

How Does Memory Suppression Work?

There are several types of memory suppression, including “conscious forgetting” and “motivated forgetting.” Conscious memory suppression is when you’re aware that you’re trying to forget something or that you’ve forgotten it intentionally, but there’s no real effort involved in doing this. 

It’s often used to refer to the sort of deliberate blocking out of memories people use during hypnosis. On the other hand, Motivated forgetting is an active process where a person makes a conscious effort to stop remembering something. This can be done consciously or subconsciously but requires some effort. People who have PTSD may practice motivated forgetting to deal with their distress over being reminded of past events they want to forget.

Sometimes, one simple act can cause you to forget something completely, at least for a short time. This is called state-dependent memory, which means that when you’re in certain states of mind, it’s easier to remember things associated with that state. For instance, if you’re thirsty while reading about water, then suddenly get thirsty for real, your brain might have trouble connecting the two events because they happened in different emotional states.

How Can You Forget Something on Purpose?

If unwanted memories are causing distress or affecting how you lead your life every day, there are some ways to forget about them on purpose:

Hypnosis —Medical hypnotherapy can be used to treat many conditions and disorders. People who have PTSD can benefit from hypnosis, particularly traditional approaches involving “abreaction” (also called abreactive therapy) where the client discusses the traumatic event(s) in detail while under hypnosis. This allows them to let their feelings out and process past traumas, so they no longer cause pain. Other methods of hypnosis that are not specifically designed for this purpose may also be used to suppress memories, but there’s little research on this particular use of hypnotherapy at present.

Electroconvulsive Therapy —This is a controversial treatment method sometimes referred to as electroshock therapy or shock treatment. It involves sending an electrical charge through the brain with the intent of causing a seizure. Because it has been linked to side effects like confusion, memory loss, and headaches, this treatment is only used on individuals who do not respond to other forms of therapy. While it may sound like an extreme measure for forgetting something embarrassing or traumatic, some studies have shown that ECT can be effective at treating severe depression as well as PTSD.

Other Medications —Anti-anxiety medications are sometimes prescribed to patients with PTSD to reduce their response to triggers. Tranquilizers are also sometimes used for this purpose by people who experience dissociation (or the feeling of being outside one’s body) during flashbacks or otherwise distressing memories. The same goes for drugs that help people sleep and relax if they constantly feel tense and anxious over past events that won’t work in the past.

Suppressing memories can be dangerous, however. When you try to forget something, the memory trace that’s been laid down in your brain doesn’t simply disappear. Instead of allowing the information to fade away naturally over time, it becomes more and more difficult for you to access these memories until they become almost impossible to remember.

Research on Forgetting Unwanted Memories

There’s a lot we still don’t know about how forgetting works and how we can use this process purposefully. While some studies have looked at the effect of motivated forgetting on traumatic events, most involve just one or two people and don’t follow up after a treatment has ended. Researchers would need many participants who come back repeatedly during multiple sessions of “memory suppression” using different methods to understand how motivated forgetting works fully.

As far as forgetting other, less serious memories goes, some studies have proposed that doing otherwise trivial tasks during the act of recalling the memory may help cause it to fade away over time, but there isn’t enough evidence yet to know for sure. Memory is a complicated process involving many parts of the brain, and past experiences can influence what kind of information our brains recall later on. There’s no guarantee that any given method will completely erase certain memories from your mind once they’ve been remembered at least once. But if you keep trying different techniques until something works, it might be possible to forget what you want—even if only for a little while!

Where Else Can You Find Out More?

There are other examples of research on how people can forget memories, which may help give you some ideas for your experiments. Some studies have looked at the effect of stress hormones like cortisol on memory suppression, while other methods focus more on distraction or ” thought substitution .” You might also explore studies that investigate how positive emotions affect what we remember. It could be worth trying out different activities to see if they make a memory fade away faster than it would otherwise.

Finally, If you’re struggling to cope with specific memories that are causing problems in your life right now, do not try to manage them by yourself! Talk to someone about your feelings and experiences instead—even if the conversation makes you uncomfortable initially. There are many helpful resources available online and in-person, depending on what you’re comfortable with. See this article for a list of common places to start.

Don’t forget that it’s important to practice good mental health habits as well—eating healthy food, exercising regularly, staying active and social, and taking time to relax are all part of the picture too. Try doing things that make you feel happy or relaxed before trying your experiment to see if they help you forget. If there’s anything else going on in your life that might be affecting your memory, consider talking about them with a counselor or therapist as well. 

Just remember that the more effort you put into forgetting something unpleasant though intentional forgetting, the less likely you will be able to remember it later! And this is fine – you won’t forget the details completely, but they may no longer trouble you as much if you work to forget them intentionally.

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