Whether or not we can choose to lose memories has been a controversial question since Freud claimed we can consciously forget or ‘repress’ unwanted memories, for example after traumatic events.
This week in Nature (Vol. 410, No. 6826, 15 Mar 2001), Michael Anderson and Collin Green of the University of Oregon have mimicked memory repression in the laboratory. They show that people who deliberately try to forget certain words do have trouble recalling them later — even when offered money for the right answer.
The new technique is a powerful way to start understanding the conditions under which selective amnesia occurs. At the extreme, this type of amnesia may be related to that suffered by victims of child abuse or in post-traumatic stress disorder. "You can’t control what you remember. But maybe you can consciously manipulate it if you think about it, or avoid it consistently," says Martin Conway of the University of Bristol, who writes an accompanying News and Views article.
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