I've just been down the gullet of an interstellar cockroach. That's one of a hundred memories I don't want.
September 2, 2012 6:13 PM   Subscribe

How does one go about intentionally forgetting something?

I read a graphic novel a couple of years ago and I still think about on a regular basis. Unfortunately, every time I do, I get depressed. And because it was a comic book, I can fixate on the ideas AND the pictures.

There are very, very few things in my life that I don't want to remember -- even most of my failures are good to reflect on from time to time. But this can go. I would love to just reach into my brain (all Locke & Key stylee, for my geeks out there) and just yank this little bastard out.

Barring that possibility, has anyone done a good job of forgetting something like this?
posted by bpm140 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I had some bad work experiences that I put out of my mind by thinking sort of "that's not how it was" or "that didn't happen." The intentional denial, after a while, kind of put the experiences out of my mind. They still come up occasionally, but don't have the same kind of force that they did originally.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:17 PM on September 2, 2012

The things I constantly remembered were not depressing, but embarrassing. But what I did was every time one popped into my head against my will I'd write it down. Eventually I had a list of them. Now--years later--I hardly ever think of them. It sounds weird but I think the act of intentionally thinking about them even for the seconds it took to jot them down made them less likely to lurk obsessively in my brain. You might try to write down each image or sentence each time it comes to you, or write as much as you can recall in a few longer sessions. Even if it doest work, it can't hurt.
posted by ocksay_uppetpay at 6:29 PM on September 2, 2012

Mindfulness through meditation should do the trick.
posted by nickrussell at 6:31 PM on September 2, 2012

Funny thing, I feel exactly the same way about a few panels of Alan Moore.

I have always had disturbing, intrusive thoughts, some of which are memories of media I should not have read or watched. I won't tell you that I have things all figured out for myself, but I've learned how to defang particular recurring ideas -- not all at once, but over a period of days or weeks. What I have to do is confront the hideous emotions that they raise in me, and to allow myself to feel as I feel, even to the point of weeping, if necessary. Once I've spent some time processing this, the thoughts don't have the same power to provoke or enrage me.

So, paradoxically, it may be that you actually need to spend time with this, figuring out what it is about this memory that punches your buttons. This is painful and sometimes slow, but if you are like me, the only way out is through.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:32 PM on September 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

What sometimes works is the crowd out. Pick something - a particular something, a novel, movie, complicated puzzle, poem. This is your automatic go-to when the unwanted memory/images crawls into your mind. Choose carefully, in the beginning it will become associated, though with time it will crowd the memory/images out.
posted by likeso at 6:35 PM on September 2, 2012

I know of no way to erase these things, but I did once work out for my own use a way to make it not matter that they're still in there.

The trick is that whenever one of these useless and bothersome memories pops up, you remind yourself to associate it with something harmless and anodyne. With practice, you won't even need the reminder and your brain will just follow the link on its own.

It helps to do a bit of preparatory work, because brains are two-way association engines and there's a risk that the harmless destination idea will get polluted by all the incoming links from the stuff you're trying not to remember. So it pays to associate something really good with the harmless thing as well, so that the tendency when you arrive at the harmless thing is to go back and forth between there and the good thing.
posted by flabdablet at 6:38 PM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I am bothered by the intrusive recurrence of a visual memory that I would rather not have, I try to replace it in my mind's eye with some other scene. So whenever I think of the horrible thing, I try not to dwell on it, and try instead to focus intently on another visual impression, which might be my actual current surroundings, or might just be a pleasanter visual substitute. Concentration and intense sensory engagement or imagination are key. For example, I think of an ugly thing that I wish I hadn't seen. I try to stop dwelling on it and avoid letting my memory run into associated details. Instead, I start concentrating intently on a vision of a paint roller painting over a white wall with tan paint. I picture the texture of the drywall, the sheen of the wet paint. I hear the sticky sound of the roller traveling over the wall and I smell the latex paint fumes. I visualize the roller going back and forth in a narrow V shape to coat the wall . . . over and over. I picture the paint can with a couple drips down its side and the pan where you dip the roller in the paint. I picture the fleecy texture of the roller cover and the underlying structure of the roller itself. And so on, pursuing this image until something more immediate grabs my attention and distracts me. If the ugly thing intrudes again, I redouble my concentration on the wall-painting scene. You get the picture?
posted by Orinda at 6:43 PM on September 2, 2012

I'd recommend Flooding.

It won't help you forget the thing, but it'll render it inert. It's kinda horrible, but works.
posted by ead at 6:44 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I go fishing and drink a lot.
posted by sanka at 6:44 PM on September 2, 2012

Oh dear god, no, ead. I can see the benefit (my wife did something similar to deal with childhood trauma), but yeah. No.
posted by bpm140 at 6:50 PM on September 2, 2012

Oh dear god, no

Ok. Shrug. Different strokes. It's worked for me to make horrible / prefer-to-forget ideas / images / experiences into inert "huh" memories. Especially because it only takes 1-2 evenings work and leaves me alone forever afterwards.
posted by ead at 6:55 PM on September 2, 2012

Look into EMDR.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:02 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the experimental psychology literature, the keyword is directed forgetting. Basically, intentionality plays a big part (and you clearly have that) as do new interfering memories. If you want to forget something, two things need to happen according to a context-based theory of memory: (1) you need to not bring it fully to mind (because every recall counts as a repeated learning trial-- also the reason testing is the best way to remember something, so you're going for the opposite), probably by short-circuiting the thought process with another remembered item as likeso mentions; and (2) you need interfering memories: stimuli that are similar to what you're trying to forget, but not so similar that the to-be-forgotten item is brought to mind. Theoretically, those stimuli will occupy a similar point in the n-dimensional space that represents your memories, making it harder to recall the to-be-forgotten item.
posted by supercres at 10:04 PM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

The trick is that whenever one of these useless and bothersome memories pops up, you remind yourself to associate it with something harmless and anodyne.

That sounds similar to the technique I suggested in response a similar question seven years ago, though I used a big wall of noisy static instead of a specific happy image. Since it's an imaginary abstract image, it has no meaning other than "you just followed a hyperlink to a site you would rather not visit", and I never noticed an issue with backreferences.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:42 PM on September 2, 2012

Although I'm good at the repressed memory thing, every so often it bubbles back up again, or worse, still seems to emotionally affect me, even though consciously I don't know why (seriously, occasionally other people have told me things like, oh, are you nervous about this because of x-happening-in-the-past? Holy crap, I'd completely repressed x! Yes, that would makes sense. The trick is just distracting yourself whenever you think about it).

So, my subconscious sometimes brings up certain traumatic thoughts or images again, and again. Sometimes I/other people even think I am interested in a topic, rather than realising that well, I'm traumatised by it, and part of my subconscious is bringing it up to get reassurance from my conscious brain.
My most effective tactic, is imagining part of my subconscious as emotionally, a small child.
So, my conscious brain has to play the loving parent, to the subconscious that has had a wee nightmare, and is bringing it up to the 'parent' to be reassured.
This'll sound really dumb, but - I talk to myself like I'm reassuring a 4 year old, and tell myself things like: "It's ok that I'm upset by 'x'. It was a sad/distressing thing, but I'll be ok. Because even though that distresses me, I still deeply, and completely love and accept myself, and I don't have to worry about it again if I don't want to."

It may sounds nuts, but rather than trying not to think about it, every time I think of it, I just try and acknowledge my distress.
To break down the steps more clearly:
a) Acknowledge that yes, it was distressing
b) Acknowledge that I deeply love and accept myself anyway, even when I am distressed by something I think I shouldn't be
c) That it was ok, and I didn't have to think about it again if I don't want to

I swear that there really is a 4 year old doing all the filing of my memories back there, because, after a few tries, that really seems to work.

If you try and tell a small child that they shouldn't be distressed by something, that doesn't work. The child keeps freaking out, and additionally feels ashamed.
If you tell them not to think about it, well, try not to think about an elephant.
If you treat the small child seriously, tell them you've looked at the situation, and while upsetting, that they will be ok, and reassure them that you love them, and that you are taking care of the situation so they don't have to worry about it any more - well. That's just good parenting.

I developed this method out of doing some Vipassana meditation, and Emotional Freedom Technique (which is a technique where you tap your body while thinking of uncomfortable memories etc, and telling yourself you love yourself, kind of as above, but the followers of which think works because of acupuncture or meridian points, which it clearly doesn't, as a study using tapping on a doll worked just as well. The tapping is just a soothing psychological distraction).

Ok, I hope that made... some kind of sense, but, just try it the next 3-4 times you involuntarily think of this, and be as loving as you would be to some small child having a nightmare.
posted by Elysum at 8:44 AM on September 3, 2012

As you've found, resisting or turning away doesn't work. Instead, invite the memories in, be nice to them and let them be friendly instead of hostile. See the article Living With Voices.
posted by KRS at 12:13 PM on September 3, 2012

I know it's pretty trite to answer a random internet question with "get therapy," but this is the kind of thing that a therapist can really help. Especially if this is happening regularly, this suggests there might be more going on there beyond "I once read an upsetting thing."

Personally, I often find that when something keeps popping to mind, it's because there's a deeper connection I need to make. Once I confront it, air it out so to speak, it fades away.

I liken it to when something gets stuck up under the gumline. You can't stop poking at it with your tongue, and it hurts to get up in there with floss, but once you get out the true cause, it all heals up fairly quickly.

Some questions to consider: Why specifically does this graphic novel upset you so? What does it remind you of? What situations bring it to mind, and why?
posted by ErikaB at 1:57 PM on September 3, 2012

I've had some unpleasant memories and images beleaguer me, and have had some success getting rid of them by counting all the prime numbers from 1 to 100 (or some arbitrary but sufficiently high number). It gives my mind something else to do, and by the time I stop, I often can't remember why I was doing it, but after a few tries, the memories (or images, or whatever) have had the sharp edges sanded off a little bit, so if they do come back, they're merely annoying, instead of really awful.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:34 PM on September 3, 2012

I have a little technique I call "The Pensieve". In Harry Potter (dunno how familiar you are with it), there's a little contraption called a Pensieve that holds any memories you don't want to keep in your head. It looks like a sink, basically. To put memories in there:

1) Think of the memory you want to put away.
2) Lightly press your wand to your head.
3) Pull your wand away. Away with the wand comes that memory.
4) Tap the wand into the sink and now the memory's in the Pensieve.

I basically did the same thing (minus the wand) - I would physically mimic the actions of putting those unhappy memories into my personal Pensieve (in my case it was in the crevice behind my bed). Tell yourself firmly that now the memory has been put away in the Pensieve, so now it's gone from your head. If there are any pesky remnants of the memory left behind behind (if you're still thinking of it ten minutes later), repeat.
It worked really well for me when I was going through a rough spot. Sometimes having a physical action to attach to an idea really, really helps.
posted by krakus at 5:04 PM on September 3, 2012

My late Mother had a wonderful technique for forgetting things. Whenever she recalled an undesirable memory she would edit it it fit her preferred version. This involved "playing the recording" time after time, making sometimes subtle changes at each iteration until it fit her ideal. For her it worked so perfectly that it was often difficult to understand what she was talking about, since the rest of the family remembered events consistently and accurately. She also had extremely poor metacognition and that may have helped her.
posted by CuriousJohn at 2:43 PM on September 4, 2012

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