More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Why Memories Haunt Us
By Daniel J. DeNoon, WebMD
Aug. 17, 2007

Whether Happy or Painful, Emotional Memories Resist Forgetting

"I have done it," says my memory. "I cannot have done it," says my pride, refusing to budge. In the end, my memory yields. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

In memory everything seems to happen to music. ~ Tennessee Williams​
Why do we remember things we'd rather forget? Emotion is the culprit, researchers find.

There are some things -- perhaps many things -- each of us would just as soon forget. Psychologists have proven that it's possible to intentionally forget things. So why can't we forget these things?

That's the question explored by University of North Carolina psychologists B. Keith Payne, PhD, and Elizabeth Corrigan.

You really can't simply erase memories from your mind, Payne and Corrigan note. But you can keep yourself from remembering things -- some things -- by using two simple strategies. First, you isolate the thing you want to forget from other memories. And then, if the memory tries to emerge, you block it.

That's very helpful when you want to keep the memory of where you parked yesterday from interfering with the memory of where you parked today. It might also be helpful if it worked to forget a painful or embarrassing event. But for some reason, that almost never works.

Exactly what makes such memories hard to forget? Emotion, theorized Payne and Corrigan. To prove it, they had 218 college students study two sets of pictures. There were 32 emotionally stirring pictures -- half pleasant and half unpleasant -- and 32 emotionally neutral pictures.

Students were told to study the first set of pictures. Half of the students were then told to forget the first set, and remember just the second set. The other students were told to remember both sets of pictures. Then both groups were asked to recall all of the pictures, regardless of what they'd been told before.

In earlier studies using word lists, researchers showed that people easily forgot the first list of items. And when they did, they were better at remembering the second list of items than those who tried to remember both lists. This is because the "forgetters" minds were less cluttered by the first list.

Payne and Corrigan found that their students were good at forgetting neutral pictures. But they did not manage to forget the emotionally stirring pictures, regardless of whether they were pleasant or unpleasant.

"Emotional memories were persistent, loitering even when they were asked to leave," Payne and Corrigan conclude. "The painful or unhappy memories people would most like to leave behind may be the ones that are most difficult to dislodge."

The researchers suggest that emotion makes intentional forgetting much more difficult. It's hard to isolate emotionally charged memories from other memories. And it's hard to suppress memories that are bright with emotion.

"Even a relatively mild emotional reaction can undermine intentional forgetting," Payne and Corrigan conclude.

The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

SOURCES: Payne, B.K. and Corrigan, E. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, September 2007; early online edition. News release, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Hi David! Hope you're recuperating well. Interesting article especially for me who is subject to flashbacks and triggers from past traumatic events (ptsd). I was once told by a therapist that i was one of those people that could not dissociate from the emotions i experienced with the traumas. She said that the majority of people have the uncanny ability to dissociate (block the memory) of painful events in an unconscious mechanism to block the painful emotions associated with the trauma and move on with life.

This article has me thinking or perhaps correcting what i thought was a memory issue. It could very well be an emotional "maladaptation" for lack of a better word. It's a complex issue.

I've not faired very well with the psychothropic treatment and have stopped all medication 5 months ago. I'm second on a waiting list for cognitive therapy at Ottawa U. Talk therapy is my last option coupled with following a strict healthy regime of supplemented wholesome nutrition, exercize, relaxation, natural sleep and healthy social boundaries.

I'm not able to forget but i can change the way i perceive the events in relation to time and space. The past is not today and tomorrow is not a promise of the past happening all over again. If this makes any sense. lol

Thanks David and Lord bless,

Interesting article, David. I'd be curious to see a study like that done with more than just a test on visual memory.

There was a really good article in Scientific American back in 2003 about stress that had some bits about stress and memory creation. I can't post a link yet, but I can tell you the article is available online, and called, "Taming Stress" from the September 2003 issue.

I hope all is well with you.

Admin edit: Link to online article added
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