It's Harder For Your Brain To Forget Things Than To Remember Them

Choosing to forget something takes more brain power than trying to remember it, researchers have discovered.

The team at The University of Texas at Austin showed a group of healthy adults pictures of scenes and faces and told them to either remember or forget each one.

They used neuroimaging to track patterns of brain activity and their findings not only confirmed that humans have the ability to control what we forget but that it requires "moderate levels" of brain activity.

In fact, the researchers discovered that the participants' brains had to work harder to forget than remember the pictures.

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They also noted that the participants had to be careful about how much mental effort they exerted -- too much, and they'd end up strengthening the memory; too little and they weren't able to modify it.

Turns out that the ability to forget is all about finding that moderate-level 'sweet spot' -- the key is to not try too hard.

The researchers also found that participants were more likely to forget scenes than faces as the latter can "carry much more emotional information." Let's be honest, a happy (or sad) face is usually more memorable than a nice view.

There's still a long way to go before scientists fully understand how to harness our ability to forget.

The plan is to eventually be able to "get rid of those really strong, sticky emotional memories which can have a powerful impact on our health and well-being," Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, the study's senior author and an assistant professor of psychology at UT Austin said.

The woman who can never forget

Rebecca Sharrock is one of only 60 people in the world who has HSAM or 'Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory' which makes her unable to forget.

The 28-year-old woman -- who also lives with autism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder -- remembers every life experience going back to her newborn years.

"I can remember an experience from when I was 12 days old, and I know my age because I came across a dated photograph of a somewhat strange experience I’d always questioned my mother about," she told 10 daily.

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Becky's drawing of a memory she has from when she was only 12 days old. Image: supplied.

Sharrock was able to draw a picture of the experience of being propped up on a front car seat while one of her parents snapped a photo.

She can also remember every outfit she ever wore, every meal she's ever eaten, every conversation she's ever had -- and all of the emotions, both positive and negative, she's ever experienced.

Sharrock says that's one of the most challenging parts about HSAM. Whenever she has a flashback she relives everything -- the emotions, thoughts and scents, physical sensations and tastes.

But it does mean she can also relive happy times such as childhood birthdays with just as much clarity -- "that’s what makes me feel blessed to have HSAM," she said.

Feature image: Carolco Pictures.

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