(Medical Xpress)—New research shows that, contrary to what was previously assumed, suppressing unwanted memories reduces their influence on behaviour, and sheds light on how this process happens in the brain.
The study, published online in PNAS, challenges the idea that suppressed memories remain fully preserved in the brain's unconscious, allowing them to be inadvertently expressed in someone's behaviour. The results of the study suggest instead that the act of suppressing intrusive memories helps to disrupt traces of the memories in the parts of the brain responsible for sensory processing.
The team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) have examined how suppression affects a memory's unconscious influences in an experiment that focused on suppression of visual memories, as intrusive unwanted memories are often visual in nature.
After a trauma, most people report intrusive memories or images, and people will often try to push these intrusions from their mind, as a way to cope. Importantly, the frequency of intrusive memories decreases over time for most people. It is critical to understand how the healthy brain reduces these intrusions and prevents unwanted images from entering consciousness, so that researchers can better understand how these mechanisms may go awry in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Participants were asked to learn a set of word-picture pairs so that, when presented with the word as a reminder, an image of the object would spring to mind. After learning these pairs, brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants either thought of the object image when given its reminder word, or instead tried to stop the memory of the picture from entering their mind.