Memory can be a tricky thing. Certain events from our childhood may stick in our memories for a long time. Random memories may pop up when we come across a certain smell, hear a name, or for no reason. Memories may come back to us and then slip our minds in an instant.
But what about forgetting? Very few people remember everything that has happened to them. We forget what we’re doing when we walk into a room. Other times, we forget because we drank too much. As we get older, we may expect to forget big and small things.
What if our minds chose to forget certain things? What if, for obvious reasons or reasons unknown, we were motivated to forget certain situations?
Some parts of this idea are controversial among psychologists. Others are more accepted. In this video, we will explore different types of motivated forgetting, how it might work, and whether you can retrieve the memories that you have forgotten. Memory is a tricky thing, but understanding it in the context of how the body and mind deal with trauma illuminates why some memories stick around and why others don’t.
What Is Motivated Forgetting?
Motivated forgetting is the process of intentionally forgetting memories, done consciously or unconsciously. These two processes work slightly differently, but they have the same goal in mind. When our mind intentionally forgets memories, it usually does so to reduce anxiety or certain impulsive behaviors.
Maybe we do not want to revisit a traumatic memory over and over again. Some psychologists suggest that we engage in motivated forgetting as a way to strip away certain parts of our identity that we may not want to hold onto. This doesn’t always work, but our minds aren’t perfect.
Consciously forgetting memories is called suppression. The process in which we unconsciously forget memories is called repression. Both types of forgetting are coping mechanisms.
Suppression, or the act of consciously forgetting memories, was introduced to psychology a decade or so before Sigmund Freud started speaking about repression. Friedrich Nietzsche believed that suppression was the mind’s way of moving forward in life. He was the first person to refer to motivated forgetting as a coping mechanism, or a “defense mechanism.” Psychologists who accept the idea of motivated forgetting today continue to identify this process as a defense mechanism that is performed with the intention of self-preservation.
The ideas of repression and motivated forgetting are not new to psychology. Sigmund Freud introduced the idea of repression in the early 20th century. He believed that certain memories, thoughts, and feelings were unconsciously repressed into the back of our minds. Often, he used the examples of incest or sexual abuse, believing that the repressed memories of these events still lingered in our subconscious and influenced our behaviors as adults. Through psychoanalysis, Freud believed that he could uncover these repressed memories and cure various types of neuroses.
What Is True Regarding Motivated Forgetting?
Nietzsche was a philosopher in the late 1800s. Freud’s work has been largely disputed and many facets have been outright rejected by the psychology community. So where does that leave us with motivated forgetting?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Since the early 1900s, there has been some discussion of motivated forgetting and how it specifically relates to trauma. Motivated forgetting was commonly linked to post-traumatic stress disorder. There are researchers who have studied links between sexual assault and motivated forgetting.
But not everyone believes that these memories are stored somewhere in the mind only for the person to uncover them. A lot of psychologists identify “weak” links to trauma and motivated forgetting. Others believe that when these memories are “recovered,” they are simply coerced or made up as the psychologist and patient work together. Many psychologists simply admit that we do not know why some memories are forgotten and why others stick with us.
Why don’t we have an answer? Part of the reason has to do with the way that psychologists research motivated forgetting. Another part of the reason is the ideas regarding suppression and repression that potentially contradict themselves.
Suppression Takes Time (And Doesn’t Always Make Sense)
The very definition of suppression is the idea that we consciously forget memories. A lot of psychologists dispute the success of this process based on common sense alone. Think of the famous scene from Inception, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character says, “I say to you, ‘Don’t think about elephants.’ What do you think about?” The obvious answer to that question is “elephants.” This scene isn’t discussing motivated forgetting, but it speaks to a contradiction in suppression.
Early psychologists who spoke about suppression believed that a patient needed a plan to suppress a memory that would ultimately lead to suppressing the memory, anything surrounding the memory, and the plan to suppress the memory itself. This can take a long time if it works. After all, we don’t revisit memories simply to forget them.
Research on Motivated Forgetting
The only way that we can know for sure if suppression or repression works is through research. Research on motivated forgetting is tricky. It’s hard to know the “truth” about what someone experienced, especially when you are just working with that one patient. It’s hard to uncover unconscious motivations. A person who has intentionally forgotten a memory, conscious or unconscious, may not be aware that they have gone through the process at all!
Plus, so many factors go into what someone remembers about an event and whether they intended to forget a memory. Maybe they genuinely do forget a memory due to lack of sleep, stress, controlled substances in the body, or other factors that would contribute to memory loss surrounding less traumatic events.
Many recent studies on this phenomenon take place in the short term, although these often fail to address personal trauma. The ethics of studying motivated forgetting also play into why it’s hard to research this phenomenon. How ethical is it to resurface a patient’s trauma for the sake of research, potentially re-traumatizing them in the process? How can researchers step away from bias as they work to “uncover” the patient’s memory of a traumatic event? As ethics in research take a higher priority among today’s psychologists, studies on motivated forgetting may take more time or require more creativity.
There is simply a lot that goes into understanding memory: how we simplify memories, how we shape memories as we recall them, and where we actually “store” our memories. Within all of this research, we come closer to understanding if and how we can intentionally forget certain memories in our life.
Forgetting as a Coping Mechanism (With A Therapist)
You may be reading about motivated forgetting because you want to forget a memory. Maybe you have been through something traumatic and do not want sights, smells, or thoughts associated with that memory to hurt you again and again. Unfortunately, I do not have a magic recipe for motivated forgetting that you can use to rid yourself of the memory and go back to life before the traumatic incident.
Certain psychologists may argue that avoiding or actively forgetting memories is causing the trauma to continue affecting your mood and behaviors. Proponents of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, ask that their patients face their traumatic memories when appropriate. Through simple exercises or talking through the trauma together, the therapist and patient can help ease the emotions tied to the memory in the patient’s mind. The memory is not forgotten, but when it is recalled, the patient is not flooded with grief, anger, humiliation, or all of the other intense emotions that come with that memory.
How to Strengthen Your Memory
Maybe you are reading this, not because want to forget memories, but because you want to remember everything. You do not want to unconsciously shove memories back into your long-term storage. A mental health professional can help you through this process, too. But there are many practices that can help you hold onto the memories that you make and keep them intact in your mind. If you commit to having a strong memory, you’re already taking the first step to filling your mind with all of the sights, smells, and feelings that you experience throughout the day.
Eight hours of sleep, a healthy diet that supports brain functioning, and a reduction in alcohol and controlled substances can all help your brain store the memories you’ve made throughout the day. Memories are placed in your long-term memory during REM, or deep, sleep. The more deep sleep you get, the more you will remember!
Exercising regularly can help your memory for a few reasons: it keeps you healthy and reduces stress! Excessive stress can put you in the same “fight or flight” mode that you may experience during trauma or situations that you might rather forget. Keeping your mind calm and focused will give you more room to store memories and stay healthy!
Talk To Your Healthcare Provider
Mood disorders, treatments for mood disorders, and medications have been linked to memory loss. If you are on medication and are experiencing a weaker memory than usual, reach out to your healthcare provider. A doctor may be able to tell you why your specific medications are messing with your memory.