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Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control

Abstract

Freud proposed that unwanted memories can be forgotten by pushing them into the unconscious, a process called repression1. The existence of repression has remained controversial for more than a century, in part because of its strong coupling with trauma, and the ethical and practical difficulties of studying such processes in controlled experiments. However, behavioural and neurobiological research on memory and attention shows that people have executive control processes directed at minimizing perceptual distraction2,3, overcoming interference during short and long-term memory tasks3,4,5,6,7 and stopping strong habitual responses to stimuli8,9,10,11,12,13. Here we show that these mechanisms can be recruited to prevent unwanted declarative memories from entering awareness, and that this cognitive act has enduring consequences for the rejected memories. When people encounter cues that remind them of an unwanted memory and they consistently try to prevent awareness of it, the later recall of the rejected memory becomes more difficult. The forgetting increases with the number of times the memory is avoided, resists incentives for accurate recall and is caused by processes that suppress the memory itself. These results show that executive control processes not uniquely tied to trauma may provide a viable model for repression.

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Figure 1: Final recall for respond and suppression items as a function of the number of repetitions for the same-probe (SP) and independent-probe (IP) tests.
Figure 2: Three mechanisms that can explain impaired recall in the same-probe condition, illustrated with a stimulus pair.
Figure 3: Final recall of withhold and respond items as a function of the number of repetitions.

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Acknowledgements

The research reported here was supported by a grant from the US National Institute of Mental Health.

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Correspondence to Michael C. Anderson.

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Anderson, M., Green, C. Suppressing unwanted memories by executive control. Nature 410, 366–369 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35066572

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