How to forget something

  • Eliminate the context: One method is consciously forgetting the context in which a traumatic memory occurred. The surfacing of a memory to our consciousness in the presence of a contextual cue is evident in songs that remind you of your first love, or the tragic heartbreak that followed.
  • Tweak the memory: The contents of memories can be substituted or tweaked… with deliberate effort.
  • Prevent re-consolidation of the memory: Re-consolidation is what strengthens a memory’s corresponding pathway. One solution is to hinder this process by assailing the pathways with suitable biochemical drugs.

Memories can be traumatizing, like remembering the last time you dropped your Mac and Cheese and wailed all the way home, without its warmth, empty-handed. On a far more serious note, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is generally observed in war veterans or victims of horrific accidents or crimes, has troubled psychologists for ages now. Psychiatric patients often suppress these memories or indulge in conversational psychotherapy in an attempt to get rid of them.

Freud believed that suppressed thoughts are infectious, or even festering — they’ll eventually gush out in a psychotic breakdown or force its bearers to extend their period of mourning, consequently maintaining the suffering that accompanies it. Yet, no matter how deep you bury it, it often oozes out through their hostile or reticent behavior. The idea presumes that long-term memories are permanent or irremovable.

Does this mean that a tortuous episode will persist forever, tormenting its bearer throughout his or her entire existence? A new study suggests otherwise…

The idea that forgetting is important for the proper functioning of the brain and memory may sound counterintuitive. However, forgetting is part of the process of memorizing, and it does not make us any less smart. Research shows that our brain has active mechanisms for forgetting. Both storing and losing memories are important for selecting and holding the most relevant information. Forgetting helps to get rid of outdated information. Forgetting the details also helps to generalize past experiences into specific categories and thus create appropriate responses to similar situations in the future.

Forgetting details helps us to remember what needs to be remembered. You cannot craft a good text without deleting and proofreading its parts. As the saying goes, it is the empty space between the notes that makes the music.

When we talk about forgetting in this article, we are not discussing forgetting related to dementia or any other neurodegenerative disease. We are talking about forgetting processes that take place in a healthy individual and are essential for the healthy working of the brain.

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On a daily basis, our brain is bombarded with too much information. Most of this information is more like noise that interferes with our decision-making and reduces the clarity of thoughts. Something needs to be done with this unneeded information. Forgetting improves the flexibility of the brain by removing such outdated and unnecessary information. It also helps to streamline our memory by eliminating useless details and generalizing the concepts involved. The function of memory is not to simply pass information through time, but also to optimize future decision-making.

Forgetting has a special function in the memorizing process. Remembering things has a cost for memory, thus forgetting irrelevant things is a cost-saving process. Our memory change is bi-directional. Some memories are made stronger, while others are either repressed or completely deleted. This makes the process of retrieving important information more efficient, as the brain uses fewer resources. Although forgetting may be frustrating, it has some fundamental benefits that aid our ability to remember.

Forgetting is also essential for our mental health. If this sound like an exaggeration, think about depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Forgetting is essential for post-traumatic recovery. People with difficulties forgetting things are more prone to depression and psychological trauma. This is the reason why one of the key components of treating PTSD is memory repression or forgetting. Thus, the ability to forget can be used as a protective mechanism that helps to improve mental health.

Some researchers even believe that forgetting is related to ethics. If unjust thoughts continue to linger in your mind, they may finally result in unethical actions. Forgetting helps us to get rid of the wrong kind of thoughts and actions. Forgetting is important for leaving behind previously experienced humiliations and continuing on with pride. Forgetting helps us to move towards the future, leaving the past behind. Both memory and forgetting contribute to the continuation of life, allowing us to forget the anger and pains of the past.

Forgetting helps us to construct our life’s plot as we want. Without forgetting unnecessary things, we cannot create a design of our liking. We cannot tell a beautiful story without omitting some secondary details.

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For proper balance in life, both conservation of memory and forgetting are important. Yoni Van Den Eede aptly wrote that:

In this doubled Faustian bargain, we must ask ourselves towards which of the two sides we have been biased, and how we can reach a balance that combines enforcement with—consciously sought-after—limitations.


Kearney, R., Dooley, M., 1999. Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy. Psychology Press.

Richards, B.A., Frankland, P.W., 2017. The Persistence and Transience of Memory. Neuron 94, 1071–1084. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.04.037.

Rossouw, P., 2013. PTSD & Voluntary Forgetting of Unwanted Memories. The Neuropsychotherapist 2, 122-124.

Schlesinger, H.J., 1970. The Place of Forgetting in Memory Functioning. J. Am. Psychoanal. Assoc. 18, 358–371. doi: 10.1177/000306517001800206.

Image via Pezibear/Pixabay.

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2) Link

A memory trick I learned over a year ago is the link technique. This works incredibly well whenever you need to remember a sequence of information. I’ve used this technique to memorize presentations I’ve had to give and as a backup if for some reason I can’t use my notepad.

The link technique works by associating two concepts together through a mental image. By linking together mental images you can store long sequences of information together flawlessly after just a minute or two of rehearsal. As a simplified example, let’s say you wanted to memorize this short grocery list:

  • Baked Beans
  • Milk
  • Squash
  • Toilet Paper

You would start by linking beans to milk. To do this you would visualize a completely exaggerated scene involving the two. A mental picture of a eating a giant bowl of baked beans with milk pouring in it would be an example. The image has to be incredibly unrealistic and exaggerated to stick in your memory. An image of a can of beans next to a carton of milk probably wouldn’t stick.

After you visualize that mental picture strongly for a few seconds, make another link. This time you would link milk and squash. You could imagine a scene where there is a field of squash vines growing, but instead of gourds, you only see large cartons of milk. Something that ridiculous will form a good link.

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Keep going through the list until you have linked up all of the images. With practice you can do this in about 3-5 minutes even for a list as long as 20-30 items. After you have done this it should be easy to move from one link to the next. The beans/milk image will remind you of the milk/squash image.

This technique works great for presentations when you don’t want to use notes.

3) Peg

The link technique is fine for concepts, but what about remembering phone numbers or things out of sequence?

The peg technique is an advanced form of the link technique so that you don’t have to refer to items in order. The actual peg technique makes use of a phonetics system for the digits 0-9 so you can remember up to hundreds of numbers in sequence. I’m not interested in these party tricks, so I’ve come up with a simpler, more practical system that takes less time to learn.

With this system you can “peg” up to ten items to ten numbers in your head, or remember a string of digits. To do it, I just came up with rhyming mechanism to provide an image for each of the ten digits:

  • Zero – Hero
  • One – Gun
  • Two – Shoe
  • Three – Tree
  • Four – Door
  • Five – Hive
  • Six – Sticks
  • Seven – Heaven
  • Eight – Grate
  • Nine – Wine

Now in order to remember a phone number, you would just form links between each of the numbers in sequence. 791 might start with some cherubs carting huge bottles of wine in the clouds (heaven + wine) and then have an image of a bottle of Merlot shooting someone (wine + gun). Then when you get the images played back you can remember what they rhyme with to decode the number.

You can memorize items without using a list by linking up to ten ideas to each of the number concepts. This can be useful when you don’t need to remember things in a particular order and don’t want to forget one from a broken link.

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