People can be trained to forget bad memories, according to new research which could herald a breakthrough in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
A study published this month by psychologists at the University of St Andrews reveals that individuals can be taught to forget feelings associated with emotional memories.
The important findings may offer new potential for the treatment of people suffering from emotional disorders like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The research showed that although individuals could still accurately recall the cause of the event, they could be trained to forget the consequences and personal meaning associated with the memory.
The work was carried out by researchers Dr Saima Noreen and Professor Malcolm MacLeod of the University’s School of Psychology.
Lead author Dr Noreen said: ‘The ability to remember and interpret emotional events from our personal past forms the basic foundation of who we are as individuals.
‘These novel findings show that individuals can be trained to not think about memories that have personal relevance and significance to them and provide the most direct evidence to date that we possess some kind of control over autobiographical memory.’
The research involved participants generating emotional memories in response to generic cue words, such as theatre, barbecue, wildlife and so on.
Participants were asked to recall the cause of the event, the consequence of the event and the personal meaning they derived from the event.
Subjects were then asked to provide a single word that was personal to them which reminded them of the memory.
In a subsequent session, participants were shown the cue and personal word pairings and were asked to either recall the memory associated with the word pair or to not think about the associated memory.
Interestingly, the findings revealed that while the entire autobiographical episode was not forgotten, the details associated with the memory were.
Specifically, individuals could remember what caused the event, but were able to forget what happened and how it made them feel.
Co-author Professor MacLeod said: ‘The capacity to engage in this kind of intentional forgetting may be critical to our ability to maintain coherent images about who we are and what we are like.’
The research, which was funded by the British Academy, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.