the art of forgetting
March 13, 2006 10:47 PM   Subscribe

How can I make myself forget something ?

The problem with forgetting is that the harder you try to forget, the more you will remember it !!

I may want to forget a bad memory of the past or stop thinking about an event coming up in the future. Or it could be that after working all day on computer solving programming problems, I want to stop work-related thoughts from bothering me when I am trying to relax.

Or I may want to forget about my limitations so that I can visualize positive things about me and give myself positive affirmations with conviction, and not just as a lip-service.

Any tips on the art of forgetting ?
posted by inquisitive to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That reminds me...
posted by vacapinta at 10:51 PM on March 13, 2006

Response by poster: P.S. Most important for me is to forget some bad memories of the past or to forget some bad qualities of another person.
posted by inquisitive at 10:51 PM on March 13, 2006

Not thinking about something needs a definition... and to define something, you have to think about it. The more energy you pay to a thought (whether to suppress or enhance it), the more energy it will gain, and the more a part of you it will be.

There's a good tip in the linked thread, though, about mental static.. that sounds very useful.
posted by Malor at 10:57 PM on March 13, 2006

It's not the easiest answer, but with respect to the past, time. It will pass (believe it or not), and the event will become more distant.
posted by advil at 11:20 PM on March 13, 2006

Another trick not mentioned in the linked thread is to write your thought down somewhere, such as a private notebook or a 3x5 notecard. Personally, I find that once something's been recorded, it doesn't occupy so much space in my head.

An alternative, such as in the case of a bad memory or something you're worrying about in the future, is to think about it, really concentrate on it and analyze it, but only for a certain set amount of time. (Like in Lost!)
posted by lhall at 11:22 PM on March 13, 2006

I think the trick to not being bothered by these thoughts is not so much forgetting them as accepting them and incorporating the knowledge you gain from them in your life.

This might be the key to forgetting as well though: if you accept it will be easier to have closure, and things that are finished are easier to forget.
posted by Skyanth at 11:35 PM on March 13, 2006

Try and turn your memory into a password for something. Everyone around here seems to forget them all the time.
posted by krisjohn at 11:40 PM on March 13, 2006

I can not recommend the knocked-unconscious technique. Fractured skulls are not treated lightly at the hospital. You may lose your bad memory, but you'll gain a passle of new ones. Hospitals. Ugh.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:43 PM on March 13, 2006

The whole yin/yang theory says that when something goes to an extreme, it shifts and becomes its opposite. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that if I really immerse myself in whatever I'm thinking about (like by writing), it will usually change to something else.
posted by salvia at 11:50 PM on March 13, 2006

When it pops into your head, acknowledge it and let is pass, and don't dwell on it. Move on to something else. Soon, the thought will pop into your head less and less. It's trying to fight them off that keeps the thoughts persisting.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:05 AM on March 14, 2006

Two things that may be worth investigating: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and hypnotherapy.

Whilst being able to wipe a memory from your mind may be impossible, either of these therapies may be able to help you train your mind not to enter (or break free from) a cycle of thoughts causing you to dwell on certain things - a day spent programming a computer, for example, or the worrying aspects of giving a presentation that you feel nervous about.

For me, hypnotherapy is a good way of improving confidence and the focus of the mind. It does not suit everyone as, being psychosomatic, if you think it won't work, it simply doesn't.

I'd recommend investigating hypnotherapy a little further, even if you regard it initially as a load of pseudo-magical crap. The reality is very different - simple and effective relaxation techniques and either being talked to or talking to yourself about stuff. Good fun, too.
posted by Kiell at 12:47 AM on March 14, 2006

posted by matteo at 1:01 AM on March 14, 2006

Deliberately forgetting things is impossible. It's just not how brains work. As soon as you think about whatever it is you want to forget, you've recalled it in the process; and recalling memories just lays them down again, making them more likely to be recalled again.

What you can do, though, is use the fact that recall inherently does this laying-back-down thing to edit and falsify troublesome memories until they no longer bother you. Make up some bullshit story about the subject of the memory (make it close enough to the original events to be plausible, but change enough things that the story leaves you feeling good at the end); then, every time the memory you're trying to falsify pops into your head, tell yourself the story again. Over time, your memory of whatever it was will come to resemble the story more than the original experience.

Most people do this by accident to some extent, which is why two people will often have starkly contrasting accounts about common experiences years later.

Some people do it - sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately - to other people.

Stopping work-related thoughts from spinning through your head when you get home needs a different technique, because that's all short-term working-memory stuff that probably won't end up being remembered long-term anyway. Best technique I know for dealing with it is twenty minutes of breath meditation every day.
posted by flabdablet at 2:33 AM on March 14, 2006

Hypnotherapy? Errrr...maybe we shouldn't be going overboard here.

For the most part, we are the sum total of the experiences that we go through. Most of this is experience from childhood. We can't really 'forget' things unless it was so traumatic that it triggered a mental block in our brain. People with said Mental Blocks generally do not live healthy lives and have other issues, often until that mental block is released. I don't think forgetting things is really that healthy.

You have to just accept things, and move on. Everyone has bad memories that they don't like. Childhood injuries, highschool breakups, climate related tragedies, and lost family members. You just have to deal with them, and look forward to the future. Learn from it, and take away any possible lesson you can find. Sometimes there isn't one. Life isn't fair, and that's just the way it is.

If you have serious problems with this, you should go see a therapist for a while. No behavior adjustments or hypnotic memory restraints, just talk to someone who can help guide you through this difficult time. Note that if you cannot afford one, your area may have low cost community services available for you.

As for the work thing....that has to do with not caring. There's a line between work and home. Go home, and don't care about work while you are there. I don't take my work home with me, as they don't pay me to sit around at home and think about my day. This is a simple learned behavior. It may help if you avoid similar tasks. Computer people tend to relax on computers, and work on computers as well. Seek a new hobby that has nothing to do with computers and technology. Perhaps hiking, bike riding, knitting, or painting. This will help distance you from your work. You could also insert some daily ritual. I sometimes think about work on the short drive home, but once I get home and shed my uniform, it becomes me time.

You don't want to forget about your limitations. You want to focus on your strengths. What are you good at, and what would you like to excel in? Think about those things.

When I was young, I'd attempt to talk about everything like I knew what I was doing, and often came off looking like an idiot. These days, everyone tells me I'm smart and I always seem to know what I'm talking about, without coming off like I'm being arrogant. The reason is simple. I know and accept my limitations. I know what I'm talking about because I only talk about things I know. When someone starts talking about Baseball or the NCAA Finals or how to cook Tofu, I don't join in, because I know nothing about those topics.

I am not a Therapist (Read: Limitation), but I do have a lot of bad memories from my past that to some extent, still effect me in negative ways today. I imagine that I'll probably still be working through some of them for years to come. As such, I hope this small bit of insight helps you on your way to enlightenment, or whatever you happen to be looking for.
posted by Phynix at 2:34 AM on March 14, 2006

Do not use alcohol. Alcohol makes everything worse.
posted by Radio7 at 3:10 AM on March 14, 2006

inquisitive - do you feel like the breath meditation, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, etc., sounds like a load of bogus crap? You might consider the DIY method of smoking marijuana - I'm a firm believer in its efficacy as a forgetting and mellowing / calming tool.

It has always been very useful for me in stripping away the past and letting me be in the now. Ask your drug dealer for more details.
posted by Meatbomb at 3:50 AM on March 14, 2006

Hypnotherapy? Errrr...maybe we shouldn't be going overboard here.

As mentioned, if you investigate mainstream hypnotherapy and ignore the stigma created by sensationalism and stage hypnosis, it can be a very effective therapy. In many respects, it is very similar to the breath meditation mentioned by flabdablet.

When it comes to relaxation, it can be as simple as repeating a word over in your mind that you associate with being relaxed. The repetition helps your mind to enter that relaxed state and can be a very calming process. As Phynix mentioned, inserting a daily ritual that you associate with unwinding and separating yourself from 'work mode' can have the same effect.

Phynix mentioned 'hypnotic memory restraints' which makes hypnotherapy sound like an aggressive process, which it isn't. In fact, the system described flabdablet of retelling a sequence of events is similar to hypnotherapy whereby associations are modified to give positive reactions. It's not extreme and I certainly wouldn't describe it as 'overboard'.
posted by Kiell at 3:56 AM on March 14, 2006

After a breakup, I once found that I kept having all of these bad feelings and memories of things that I wanted to forget every time I saw the ex (which was frequently). Eventually I wrote down all the things that angered me and sent them to her, which allowed me to let it go somewhat. Even just writing them down on the page really helped.
posted by rwatson at 4:29 AM on March 14, 2006

I've done that myself a few times rwatson. I only actually sent the letter once. The other times I did a proof-read and decided I was only hurting the other, it would be mostly useless to them, and felt better for it.

Kiell, I have no experince with hypno-therapy, and am aware that it's portrayed incorrectly in movies and such. However, I don't think inquisitive is in the best position to make that kind of judgement call. This seems like a bad relationship memory, and not something as life altering as watching someone being burned alive where the memory and sights will haunt your dreams for the next 20 years. (Saw that in a movie earlier today.) As such, if he needs to go the road of therapy, he should probably start with a basic therapist and if such a need for HypnoTherapy is there, the Therapist will recommend it and go from there. I just don't see it as needed.

To me, this sounds more like wanting to know the art of dealing with bad memories, and not forgetting them, since that can't be done. Astro Zombie and advil really have the best answers for the long run.
posted by Phynix at 4:52 AM on March 14, 2006

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy sometimes used for post-traumatic stress disorder, and purported to be good for forgetting things. Some people say it's a bunch of unsubstantiated crap though. In my experience (having a therapist move her hand in a prescribed way in front of my eyes and lead me in a visualization exercise), it made my brain really tired, but in a good way. I'm not sure if I forgot anything, so that could mean it's great or it sucks. The woman who started it said that taking a walk in a park (and the eye movements involved?) helped her forget distressing memories. You might try that instead (it's cheaper, that's for damn sure).
posted by unknowncommand at 5:14 AM on March 14, 2006

In the long run, time will do the trick -- even for relationship issues, IMHO.

In the short run, getting engrossed in a good book works well for me in getting my mind off whatever.

Depending on your age and inclinations, something like rock climbing (indoor gym or outdoor) might be a good hobby. I went a couple times with friends and nothing focuses your mind like trying not to fall off a cliff that you are holding onto by your fingertips and toes. No way you can think about anyhting else!
posted by bim at 5:32 AM on March 14, 2006

Psychologist, Daniel Wegner, calls the processes that make it impossible consciously to suppress a thought the ironic processes in mental control. When you try not to think, for example, about a pink elephant, or about that cigarette you are trying to avoid, your attempt to control your mind entails two processes: 1) The operating process, by which your mind works to achieve the desired state (not thinking about the elephant or cigarette) by searching for mental content that is pink elephant-free or cigarette-free. 2) The monitoring process, by which the mind tests if the operating process is successful by searching for mental content that is inconsistent with the desired state.

In order to conduct that monitoring process, the mind needs to have available the content that it is searching for to make sure it is not present. Hence, the ‘ironic’ process, whereby the very exercise of the process undermines the effectiveness of mental control. The two processes together are responsible for whatever control over your thoughts you do have. Wegner says that the operating process requires more cognitive capacity and normally has a bigger effect on mental control than does the monitoring process. But, when your cognitive capacity is taxed for some reason, the monitoring process may dominate. Thus, when you are stressed, the thought of that cigarette becomes harder to suppress.
posted by langedon at 6:50 AM on March 14, 2006


Given that inquisitive's situation is not given in detail and appears to be quite broad in its range, I wouldn't like to be so presumptuous as to assume that inquisitive can't make that judgement call himself.

I also said that hypnotherapy may be worth investigating and is not suitable for everyone.

I think you would also benefit from learning about hypnotherapy as from what you have said, you do not seem at all familiar with what sort of treatments and aids it can offer. You recommended Astro Zombie's method of simply thinking about something else. This is a good idea, but it's not always possible otherwise we would all do it 24/7. Cognitive behaviour therapy and hypnotherapy can both teach techniques to train the mind to focus on other thoughts and make the process of simply 'thinking about something else' a lot easier, quicker and long-lasting.

I also suggested investigating hypnotherapy as a little research might lead you to discover self-hypnosis, which does not require any sessions with a therapist.

I assume from your post that you think that hypnotherapy deals specifically with massive trauma. If you click the link you will find that it tends primarily to deal with much smaller problems such as self confidence, relaxation, quitting smoking, phobias, public speaking, motivation, memory, etc.
posted by Kiell at 6:57 AM on March 14, 2006

Never think about it. If it comes to mind, think of a hot air balloon race in the spring, or something else nice, far and away.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 9:02 AM on March 14, 2006

Well, you could try electroshock therapy.

In seriousness though, just stop thinking about it. You definetly can't 'try' to forget something. Every time it comes up in your head, just focus your mind on something else as soon as possible. But definetly not the same thing. otherwise you'll just associate the two.

The other thing is to remove any things that will trigger the memory from your life.
posted by delmoi at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2006

I have read that people are more likely to remember puzzles if they were left unfinished. Once the person finished the puzzle, some sort of hook went away and they were more likely to forget the puzzle.

I'm not sure how to apply this to your specific situation, but perhaps it's close to what lhall was recommending about writing it down.

I tried googling more info on this, but the product of my google fu x time didn't get any results.

Good luck!
posted by alms at 9:32 AM on March 14, 2006

People often forget things that don't fit with their personal narrative-- the story they tell themselves about themselves. Someone who thinks they're unattractive often pushes aside memories of someone flirting with them. Someone who thinks he's a good parent often pushes aside memories of times when he's failed. It's not willful forgetting, but these memories just aren't reinforced by the personal narrative and don't find a way to "hook in" (i.e. get reinforced by spontaneously bringing them to mind).
posted by the jam at 11:01 AM on March 14, 2006

Within a few minutes of learning the target information, inject yourself with a high dose of intravenous benzodiazepines. Those with more pronounced amnestic properties include midazolam, alprazolam, and flunitrazepam.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2006

Ask MetaFilter: inject yourself with a high dose of intravenous benzodiazepines.

Sorry, Matt.
posted by flabdablet at 2:56 PM on March 14, 2006

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