“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, (Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863)
In the 1980s, Daniel Wegner (1948-2013) – who was a pioneering social psychologist at Harvard University best known for his groundbreaking research on thought suppression – stumbled upon the above-mentioned Dostoevsky “polar bear” quote, which inspired him to dedicate the rest of his life to deconstructing the best way to deliberately forget about something.
As Dostoevsky writes in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
We all know from daily life experience that Dostoevsky is right:
The more you try to forget about something or suppress a visual image in your mind, the more you think about that topic or conjure up the ‘vetoed’ image in your mind’s eye.
Daniel Wegner was so intrigued by Dostoevsky’s “polar bear” hypothesis that he designed a psychological experiment to test this 19th-century observation in a 20th-century laboratory setting.
During Wegner’s first thought-suppression study, participants were explicitly instructed not to think about a white bear for five minutes as they verbalized stream of consciousness thoughts.
Throughout these five minutes, every time someone (who had been told, “don’t think about white bears!“) thought about a white bear, he or she was instructed to ring a bell. Most study participants rang the bell multiple times during the five-minute test.
In a follow-up experiment, Wegner and colleagues instructed another group of participants to only think about white bears for five minutes.
When the researchers compared the number of “thought tokens” relating to white bears from both groups, Wegner et al. found that being told not to think about white bears made the unwanted thought more omnipresent in people’s minds.
The main takeaway from the initial “white bear” thought-suppression experiments:
The more people tried not to think about white bears; the more they thought about white bears. In 1987, Wegner published these findings in a paper, “Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression,” which is credited with kickstarting the modern-day field of thought-suppression research.
Wegner and co-authors summed up their findings on the paradox of trying to suppress thoughts about white bears:
“These observations suggest that attempted thought suppression has paradoxical effects as a self-controlstrategy, perhaps even producing the very obsession or preoccupation that it is directed against.”
A Million-Dollar Thought Suppression Question: What Is the Best Way to Stop Thinking Unwanted Thoughts?
Throughout the late-20th century, Wegner fine-tuned his “Ironic Process of Mental Control” theory.
By the dawn of this century, it became clear to Wegner that people were hungry for some take-home advice based on the paradoxical findings of his “white bear” experiments.
I am one of these people.
Anecdotally, everyone reading this probably has a specific unwanted memory or something you tend to ruminate about that you’d like to think about less via successful thought suppression.
In 2011, Wegner gave a presentation at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention that laid out five specific strategies he recommended for helping to “suppress the white bears.” These include:
- Pick an absorbing distractor and focus on that instead
- Try to postpone the thought
- Cut back on multitasking
- Meditation and mindfulness
Wegner’s fifth recommendation of “exposure” is based on the counterintuitive hypothesis that if you force yourself to consciously focus attention (for a brief period) on thinking about something you’re ultimately trying to forget, the unwanted thought is less likely to pop into your mind at a later date.
“This [exposure] is painful,” Wegner said in a 2011 APA statement, “but it can work.”
Although Wegner’s work on thought suppression wasn’t neuroscience-based, recently 21st-century, state-of-the-art fMRI research from the University of Texas at Austin reaffirmed that exposure (purposely thinking about unwanted memories) may, in fact, be the most effective way for someone’s brain to forget about proverbial “white bears.”
Successful Thought Suppression May Require More (Not Less) Attention to Unwanted Memories
Choosing to forget something might take more mental effort than trying to remember it, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin discovered through neuroimaging.
These findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that in order to forget an unwanted experience, more attention should be focused on it.
This surprising result extends prior research on intentional forgetting, which focused on reducing attention to the unwanted information through redirecting attention away from unwanted experiences or suppressing the memory’s retrieval.
“We may want to discard memories that trigger maladaptive responses, such as traumatic memories, so that we can respond to new experiences in more adaptive ways,” said Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of psychology at UT Austin.
“Decades of research has shown that we have the ability to voluntarily forget something, but how our brains do that is still being questioned.
Once we can figure out how memories are weakened and devise ways to control this, we can design treatment to help people rid themselves of unwanted memories.”
Memories are not static.
They are dynamic constructions of the brain that regularly get updated, modified and reorganized through experience.
The brain is constantly remembering and forgetting information – and much of this happens automatically during sleep.
When it comes to intentional forgetting, prior studies focused on locating “hotspots” of activity in the brain’s control structures, such as the prefrontal cortex, and long-term memory structures, such as the hippocampus.
The latest study focuses, instead, on the sensory and perceptual areas of the brain, specifically the ventral temporal cortex, and the patterns of activity there that correspond to memory representations of complex visual stimuli.
“We’re looking not at the source of attention in the brain, but the sight of it,” said Lewis-Peacock, who is also affiliated with the UT Austin Department of Neuroscience and the Dell Medical School.
Using neuroimaging to track patterns of brain activity, the researchers showed a group of healthy adults images of scenes and faces, instructing them to either remember or forget each image.
Their findings not only confirmed that humans have the ability to control what they forget, but that successful intentional forgetting required “moderate levels” of brain activity in these sensory and perceptual areas – more activity than what was required to remember.
“A moderate level of brain activity is critical to this forgetting mechanism.
Too strong, and it will strengthen the memory; too weak, and you won’t modify it,” said Tracy Wang, lead author of the study and a psychology postdoctoral fellow at UT Austin.
“Importantly, it’s the intention to forget that increases the activation of the memory, and when this activation hits the ‘moderate level’ sweet spot, that’s when it leads to later forgetting of that experience.”
The researchers also found that participants were more likely to forget scenes than faces, which can carry much more emotional information, the researchers said.
“We’re learning how these mechanisms in our brain respond to different types of information, and it will take a lot of further research and replication of this work before we understand how to harness our ability to forget,” said Lewis-Peacock, who has begun a new study using neurofeedback to track how much attention is given to certain types of memories.
“This will make way for future studies on how we process, and hopefully get rid of, those really strong, sticky emotional memories, which can have a powerful impact on our health and well-being,” Lewis-Peacock said.
Exposure to trauma impacts ability to squash bad memories
More information: More is Less: Increased Processing of Unwanted Memories Facilitates Forgetting, JNeurosci (2019). DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2033-18.2019
Provided by University of Texas at Austin