How can I deliberately forget something?
June 21, 2005 10:26 AM   Subscribe

If I see something I'd rather not remember (like a spoiler for a movie I plan on seeing, or an unsettling image), are there any tricks I can use to prevent myself from remembering it? And once I've remembered it, is there anything I can do to deliberately forget it, short of visiting Lacuna, Inc?
posted by yankeefog to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
don't care so much.

this is difficult, but really useful - it applies to all kinds of situations, like getting to sleep when there's a noisy party elsewhere.

basically, we forget and ignore stuff all the time. what we keep / focus on is what we think is important. unfortunately "important" can mean "annoying" or "upsetting".

so you need to learn (discover?) how to quickly recognise something as an "unwanted negative" and then drop it. think of something else. it's not your problem. zone out. don't care. shrug it off. etc etc.

something like skipping bad threads on mefi. :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

I made up a forgetting-trick when I was young, and it worked pretty well. I haven't used it in ages, but none of the things I used it to forget have come back to haunt me, so I guess it has some staying power. The secret is that you don't actually need to forget things: it's good enough to not accidentally remember them.

It goes like this: first you establish a screening image. I used white noise, both audio and video: a field of violent static, filling my entire field of view; like a TV with no antenna, with a loud full hissing wash of sound. Lots of noise, really chaotic and messy, almost on the edge of being painful, so that I felt like jerking back from it a little. Kind of a sensory overload feeling. Think about it until you have fully set it up and know exactly what it looks and sounds like.

Now think about the thing you want to forget - but as soon as it comes up in your mind, flip to your screening image. Focus on the noise and the wash of static; make it really loud and thick; don't let the thought underneath surface. Eventually you will get bored of this and relax. Most likely the thing you want to forget will float back up into your head. Immediately flip to your screening image again, and hold it until you get distracted. It gets easier each time; after a half dozen repetitions of this it starts to become a habit. As soon as the thought starts to form in your head, you will find yourself reflexively flipping to the picture of static. You will still need to exert a little willpower to keep the thought underneath from floating up, but remembering to think about the static instead comes pretty quickly.

What I found is that after the initial forgetting session, the thought always comes up paired with the fact that you wanted to forget it, and with an easy path to your big field of static. So just keep jumping to the static instead of actually letting the thought form. Within a day or two this will be the easy habit, and it will feel like more work to not think of the static, but to dig up the forgotten thought instead. You will always feel like you could remember the thought, if you wanted to; but you have to decide to do it, instead of having the recollection arise unbidden.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:13 AM on June 21, 2005 [5 favorites]

Phrasing things in the negative has the opposite effect. For example, if I tell you to NOT think of pink elephants. What will you think about? pink elephants... that's because in order to do the opposite of something your mind has to be aware of the thing you don't want. Contrast this with, now that you've not thought of pink elephants, allow yourself to think of that wonderful experience you had the other day...
If your mind is given an alternative it will follow it.
So, how do you forget? There are many more serious situations where it would be useful to forget. For example, how useful would it be to forget to have a phobic response ?
Or to forget to procrastinate? (which I should be doing right now).
For all these examples, the approach is pretty much the same. Our memory is very much associative. In order to find things in it, we follow leads or triggers that direct our consciousness to the particular experience in memory. The trick to forgetting then is not to not think about it, but to give our mind a new path to follow. What you do is isolate the trigger or association to the memory. That is find the thing you thought about just before you remembered. Once you do that you find a new response you want instead, for example seeing a picture in your mind of the mona lisa. The process then is simple (and importantly fast). You think of the trigger and immediately think of the new desired response. Repeat a few times, as necessary, until the trigger leads your mind to the new response.

For the unsettling image, forgetting might not be the best approach. An alternative would be to make the image settling instead. Notice for yourself how changing the brightness of the image, adding a frame around it, seeing yourself in the image vs. from your eyes, switching it from 3-d to 2-d, etc... see how each of these impact your response to the image differently and pick the ones that give you the response you most desire. Then, as before, you may find the next time you think of this image that you allow it to come up with these settling properties .
posted by blueyellow at 11:23 AM on June 21, 2005

none of the things I used it to forget have come back to haunt me

how would you know, if it really worked as you claimed? i'm not saying it doesn't work in some way (sounds like a good process), but might it not work because it gives you a safe way of addressing those images? safe because you can "flip" to the safe image. so you find a way that lets you acclimatise - by using the safe image to give you safe access the previously threatening image quickly loses it's power and becomes a non-issue.

(so you're not training yourself to blank it out, but simply using the process you describe as a way to overcome your fear, much like exposing people who are terrified of spiders to images of spiders, then spiders themselves).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:38 AM on June 21, 2005

See also: The Game, which I just lost.
posted by odinsdream at 12:04 PM on June 21, 2005

Some people might suggest that copious amounts of marijuana would clean you right out.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:50 PM on June 21, 2005

andrew: sure, that's possible; I don't actually know what the things were that I was trying to forget, since there seems to be no difference between the identity and the substance of a memory. Still, it feels like I no longer accidentally remember the things I tried to forget, so the technique was subjectively successful. It would be interesting to devise some experiment which could find out whether I'm really forgetting it or just muting its emotional impact, but I don't really know how to do that when the black box, the experimental results, and the test apparatus are all mixed up in my brain together.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:16 PM on June 21, 2005

posted by blag at 2:20 PM on June 21, 2005

If you're really serious about this, I recommend learning progressive meditation. It's used in systematic desensitization for phobias, much the way that the "screening image" is suggested by an above poster, except that this method does not require you to think about the thing you want to forget, which is critical. Once you shift this memory from short-term to long-term through repetition, it's much harder to excise.

The standard method for SD is to go into relaxation mode -- usually involving imagery -- whenever the stimulus becomes present. So if your thoughts start leading you to the thing you want to forget, the meditative imagery becomes an effective block, partly because you also relax enough to not get uptight about this thing. Most important thing: do not repeat the idea/thought/memory internally.
posted by dreamsign at 5:44 AM on June 22, 2005

Thanks, everybody!
posted by yankeefog at 8:31 AM on June 27, 2005

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