Why Memories Haunt Us
Whether Happy or Painful, Emotional Memories Resist Forgetting
"I have done it," says my memory. "I cannot have done
it," says my pride, refusing to budge. In the end, my memory
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
In memory everything seems to happen to music.
-- Tennessee Williams
Aug. 17, 2007 - Why do we remember things we'd rather forget? Emotion is the
culprit, researchers find.
There are some things -- perhaps many things -- each of us would just as
soon forget. Psychologists have proven that it's possible to intentionally
forget things. So why can't we forget these things?
That's the question explored by University of North Carolina psychologists
B. Keith Payne, PhD, and Elizabeth Corrigan.
You really can't simply erase memories from your mind, Payne and Corrigan
note. But you can keep yourself from remembering things -- some things -- by
using two simple strategies. First, you isolate the thing you want to forget
from other memories. And then, if the memory tries to emerge, you block it.
That's very helpful when you want to keep the memory of where you parked
yesterday from interfering with the memory of where you parked today. It might
also be helpful if it worked to forget a painful or embarrassing event. But for
some reason, that almost never works.
Exactly what makes such memories hard to forget? Emotion, theorized Payne
and Corrigan. To prove it, they had 218 college students study two sets of
pictures. There were 32 emotionally stirring pictures -- half pleasant and half
unpleasant -- and 32 emotionally neutral pictures.
Students were told to study the first set of pictures. Half of the students
were then told to forget the first set, and remember just the second set. The
other students were told to remember both sets of pictures. Then both groups
were asked to recall all of the pictures, regardless of what they'd been told
In earlier studies using word lists, researchers showed that people easily
forgot the first list of items. And when they did, they were better at
remembering the second list of items than those who tried to remember both
lists. This is because the "forgetters" minds were less cluttered by
the first list.
Payne and Corrigan found that their students were good at forgetting neutral
pictures. But they did not manage to forget the emotionally stirring pictures,
regardless of whether they were pleasant or unpleasant.
"Emotional memories were persistent, loitering even when they were asked
to leave," Payne and Corrigan conclude. "The painful or unhappy
memories people would most like to leave behind may be the ones that are most
difficult to dislodge."
The researchers suggest that emotion makes intentional forgetting much more
difficult. It's hard to isolate emotionally charged memories from other
memories. And it's hard to suppress memories that are bright with emotion.
"Even a relatively mild emotional reaction can undermine intentional
forgetting," Payne and Corrigan conclude.
The study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental