Keep your mind busy if you want to forget

Forgetting gets a bad rap. We think of remembering as inherently better than forgetting. After all, no one aspires to be forgetful, right?

But forgetting is actually one of the most important skills there is. It’s the way we move on from traumatic events and stay focused on the positive. Imagine trying to live your life if you were constantly remembering every single bad thing that ever happened to you!

The importance of forgetting is one reason researchers have been studying the science of how people intentionally forget things for decades. The experiments typically go something like this:

  1. A group of test subjects are given a list of words to memorize.
  2. The subjects are then told to forget some of the words on the list.
  3. The subjects are tested on which words they remember.

What these kinds of studies have shown is that people can forget things on purpose. Generally, people who participate in this experiment won’t be able to recall the words they tried to forget as well as the other words. This phenomenon is called directed forgetting.

However, a new study has thrown a twist into the picture. It turns out that how good people are at forgetting the words depends on what they do right after they’re told which words to forget.

To put it another way, whether you can forget something you want to forget depends on what you do after you decide you want to forget it.

So how did the researchers figure this out? They added a fourth step to the classic directed forgetting experiment:

  1. The test subjects were given a list of words to memorize.
  2. The subjects were told to forget some of the words.
  3. The subjects then took part in activities unrelated to the words. Half the subjects engaged in “passive” tasks like listening to music or looking at photographs and half the subjects engaged in “active” tasks like solving math problems.
  4. The subjects were tested in which words they remembered.

When the subjects were tested, it turned out that how good people were at forgetting depended on whether they’d been involved in the passive tasks or the active tasks.

The people who’d taken part in active tasks experienced directed forgetting as expected – that is, they couldn’t remember the words they were told to forget as well as the words they were told to remember. However, the people who’d engaged in passive tasks remembered the words they wanted to forget about as well as the words they wanted to remember!

So the takeaway is that if you have something you want to forget, get busy! The study suggests that keeping your mind active basically makes you a genius at forgetting things (I’m paraphrasing – the authors didn’t put it in quite those terms).

This research sheds new light on how people forget because it’s the first evidence that not keeping your mind busy impairs your ability to wipe things out of your memory. But the study of people trying not to think about things is as old as psychology.

A classic example is that if you try not to think about a polar bear, you’ll have a hard time thinking of anything other than a polar bear. As Dostoevsky wrote in 1863:

Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

So yes, I’m sorry if you have polar bears on the brain now. But since this is 2016, we know something good old Fyodor didn’t: if you want to forget about polar bears, just go do some math problems!

Photo: FreeImages.com/Courtney Icenhour