A recently published study from the University of Cambridge brings a surprising result regarding the tendency to want to mentally push back and suppress unwanted memories.
Unwanted memories – in the context of psychotherapy – usually arise when people experience unpleasant events, up to and including extremely traumatic events. A popular way of thinking about these events is that it is important to not push these memories away because then, instead of having control over the memory, it will unconsciously influence the choices that person makes, often negatively so. Simply put, popular opinion among psychologists has been:
Memory Suppression = Bad!
This new study evaluated that unconscious influence of suppressed memories on behavior and Science Daily offers a nice summary of the article. The researchers’ conclusions appear to be that if we can successfully suppress a memory, it will not influence our behavior. That is, if we try to forget something than it seems that we can, or at least to a degree we can.
What does this mean? Is conventional psycho-therapeutic wisdom out the window?
Not really. At least not in my view. Instead, consider that memories which we actively try to forget – an embarrassing moment when we have said the wrong thing, rejection by a romantic interest, or a traumatic car accident – tend to be memories of such strength that it is difficult to imagine being able to put it out of our minds successfully. The study focused on memory of neutral stimuli, not on highly emotional stimuli, which is usually the case when clients are trying to ignore or forget.
What it does mean, instead, is that forcing individuals to remember events which they cannot remember may not be as useful or necessary as previously thought. Instead, unconscious memories may have much less power than once believed.
Perhaps what can be learned here is this:
We remember what we remember and we do not have to force ourselves to recall everything in order to be psychologically healthy.