Memory Eraser: This Trick Helps You Forget

A woman looks like she is trying to forget something.
(Image credit: Olena Zaskochenko/

Whether it's an embarrassing situation at work or a bad date, everyone has memories they'd rather forget, and now new research suggests a way to do just that.

In the study, researchers found that trying to push away your thoughts about the less obvious, background aspects of such memories was key to intentionally forgetting something. Those background aspects may include the smells and sounds related to the actual events you'd rather not remember.

For example, if you wanted to forget the details of a conversation you just had,  "you could push out of your mind a song playing in the background, or thoughts related to a scene happening outside your window or something like that," said study co-author Jeremy Manning, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Although the researchers did not examine the details of the strategies people in the study employed to mentally push out certain thoughts, researchers have previously suggested two main strategies that might help in this process, Manning said. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]

One strategy is to clear one's mind and deliberately try to think of nothing, and the other involves trying fill one's mind with thoughts about something very different than whatever a person is trying to forget. "If you don't want to think of the color blue, you think of green things instead, or red," Manning told Live Science. "Or, if you don't want to think of one song, you try to distract yourself with another song."

In the new study, the researchers looked at 25 people ages 19 to 34. The researchers gave the participants lists of words to study while showing them images of outdoor scenes, such as forests, mountains and beaches. The researchers then asked the people to try to either remember the words on the list or forget them. Meanwhile, the researchers scanned the people's brains to look at their brain activity throughout the experiment.

Results showed that when the people were asked to forget the words, they tried to push out of their minds thoughts related to the images they had been shown while studying the words. "It's like intentionally pushing thoughts of your grandmother's cooking out of your mind if you don't want to think about your grandmother at that moment," Manning said in a statement.

However, this pushing out of the images did not occur when the people were asked to remember the words, according to the study, published May 5 in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. [Why You Forget: 5 Strange Facts About Memory]

It also turned out that that when the people were told to forget the words, the more they pushed away their thoughts about the images, the fewer words they were actually able to recall later on. This finding shows that the process is effective at facilitating forgetting, the researchers said.

Though studies of memory often focus on how people remember things, forgetting can sometimes be beneficial, too, Manning said. For example, some people, such as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may want to forget traumatic events, he said. "Or we might want to get outdated information 'out of our head,' so we can focus on learning new material," he said. "Our study identified one mechanism that supports these processes."

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer