Bad memories can underlie several problems, from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to phobias. Some evidence suggests it may be possible to block something such as an unwanted memory, but more research about how to forget a memory is necessary.

When an unwanted memory intrudes on the mind, it is a natural human reaction to want to block it out. More than 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud suggested that humans have a defense mechanism that they can use to help manage and block traumatic experiences and unwanted memories.

While more research is still necessary, scientists have started understanding how this may work. Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated which brain systems play a part in deliberate forgetting, and studies have shown that it is possible for people to deliberately block memories from their consciousness.

This article will discuss how people can try to forget unwanted memories.

A film camera photo with an encroaching blur obscuring half of the imageShare on Pinterest
Thais Varela/Stocksy

Researchers can better understand neuronal mechanisms that create and store memories by investigating and studying the human mind. While more research is necessary, neuroscientists and psychologists may be able to use this information to help people forget unwanted memories.

Some evidence supports the theory of motivated forgetting. This theory suggests that people can block unpleasant, painful, or traumatic memories if there is a motivation to do so.

Substituting memories

Some people may consider using thought or memory substitution strategies to help them suppress unwanted memories.

This technique suggests that people can substitute a negative memory by redirecting their consciousness toward an alternative memory. Experts sometimes describe this technique as similar to slamming on the brakes in a car or steering to avoid a hazard.

Gaining a better understanding of how people can substitute an unwanted memory may help people to avoid reliving a traumatic event.

Changing contexts

The mental context in which a person perceives an event affects how the mind organizes the memories of that event. Context can be anything that is associated with memory. Often, it may include sense-related cues, such as smell or taste, the external environment, and the thoughts or feelings a person experiences around the event.

A 2021 study found that attaching a positive meaning to a past negative experience can have a long lasting impact. By associating a positive experience with the memory, a person can change the context of that event and induce a positive feeling when remembering the event in the future.

This strategy may work through the process of cognitive regulation. Changing how a person thinks about a situation can modify how they may feel about it.

Additionally, a 2016 study suggests that changing contextual information about an event could make it possible for a person to intentionally forget an unwanted memory.

Weakening memories that cause phobias

A treatment option for people living with a phobia may include exposure therapy. This involves exposing the individual to a fearful situation in a safe environment to help them create a safe memory.

Similarly, a 2016 study indicates that disrupting a memory can reduce its strength. In the study, researchers exposed individuals with arachnophobia to images of spiders, with subsequent sessions involving longer exposure. By the last session, people had a lesser tendency to avoid spiders.

The researchers suggest that initial exposure made the memory unstable, and longer exposure leads to the person saving the memory in a weaker form. By disturbing the memory, it was more difficult for the element of fear to return so easily.

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice describes the strategy of recalling or retrieving information from memory. Research notes that this effective study method can help people remember information. Some experts theorize that this technique could help people to replace unwanted memories.

Similar to how people may forget information and update it with more relevant knowledge, such as when changing passwords or phone numbers, retrieval practice may help people update memories.

A 2020 study indicates that using retrieval practice could help to facilitate memory updating. However, while it could strengthen new memories and reduce old memory intrusion, it may not be able to suppress older memories.

Alternatively, other research suggests that using retrieval suppression, the prevention, or suppression, of the ability to recall memories, could also help block unwanted memories. A 2022 study suggests that retrieval suppression can help to control intrusive memories by weakening them and making them less vivid.

However, more research into retrieval practice is necessary to understand how it may help with forgetting unwanted memories.

Neurons are nervous system cells that use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information throughout the body. The brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons, and each can form and connect to other neurons, potentially creating up to 1,000 trillion connections.

Some experts may define memory as how the mind interprets, stores, and retrieves information. Memories develop when a person processes an event, causing neurons to send signals to each other, creating a network of connections of various strengths. As such, memory is the reactivation of a specific neuronal pathway, which forms from the changes in the strength and patterns of connections.

The more a person dwells on memory, the stronger these neuronal connections become. Memories typically remain as long as a person revisits them. When a person revisits a memory, it becomes flexible again. The memory can change a little each time a person recalls it, and it can reset stronger and more vividly with every recall.

Experts refer to this process of strengthening as reconsolidation. This process can alter memories and may make them more positive or negative.

The brain is also able to process memories in different ways. Most scientists agree there are four different types of memory:

Different areas of the brain specialize in storing different types of memories. For example, the hippocampus can process and retrieve declarative and spatial memories. These refer to memories relating to facts and events or locations and planning routes. Additionally, the hippocampus helps convert short-term memories to long-term memories.

Many people may find that bad experiences stand out in their memory more than good ones. These memories can intrude on our consciousness even when we do not want them to.

This may occur due to negativity bias, which refers to our brain giving more importance to negative experiences. Negativity bias may result from evolution, as it may have been beneficial for helping our ancestors remain cautious when in dangerous areas.

Similarly, research also notes that negative emotions can help with the precision of memories. Other evidence also highlights that people can remember emotional events more clearly, accurately, and for longer periods.

Learn more about how to let go of the past.

To complement cognitive approaches, some scientists suggest using drugs to help remove bad memories or their fear-inducing aspect.

For example, D-cycloserine is an antibiotic, and it also boosts the activity of glutamate, an “excitatory” neurotransmitter that activates brain cells. Some evidence suggests that this drug can reduce fear responses and encourage extinction learning. This term refers to the gradual decrease in response to a stimulus, such as a negative response to an unwanted memory.

Similarly, other evidence indicates that propranolol, a beta-blocker that helps the heart to beat slower and more steadily, could also help to reduce long-term fear and encourage extinction learning. However, more research is necessary to understand how to use these drugs safely and effectively.

While it could be beneficial to possess strategies that can manipulate memory and help people to forget unwanted memories, these methods are not without ethical issues.

There is potential for people to abuse these techniques and implant false memories or erase important ones. People could use them to erase inconvenient events; others could commit crimes and make witnesses forget events.

Some frequently asked questions about unwanted memories may include:

How do I forget something traumatic?

It may not always be possible to forget unwanted memories, but people can use strategies to help them cope with traumatic events. This can include memory suppression techniques, identifying triggers, and contacting a mental health specialist.

Learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and coping strategies.

Why do I only remember bad memories from childhood?

It is not unusual for people to have difficulty remembering their childhood. When they do, it is also not uncommon to remember bad memories. There are many possible reasons for this, including the emotional significance of the bad memory and ruminating on unpleasant thoughts.

Learn how to stop ruminating thoughts.

Many people may experience unwanted memories following a traumatic event. Researchers are beginning to understand how the brain creates memories, stores them, and can recall them through studying the human mind.

A person may not be able to forget an unwanted memory, but techniques are available to help an individual manage negative events.

Typically, these strategies involve disturbing the initial memory and either replacing it with a positive meaning, reducing its significance, substituting it with another memory, or suppressing the memory itself.