Suppressing Visual Memories Through Executive Control
Peterson, Emily D.
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Peterson, Emily D.
Forgetting is often perceived as the challenge one must overcome to have a good memory, when in fact, forgetting is actually an important component in maintaining a good memory. If people remembered everything from their daily lives they would become overloaded with unimportant thoughts, making it difficult to recognize relevant information. For example, if one remembered every parking place one's car had ever occupied it would become difficult to bring to mind only the current parking place. Irrelevant or intrusive thoughts can also be distracting and unpleasant. For these reasons the ability to push information out of mind can be a useful skill. For instance, if one's favorite restaurant changed location, one would benefit from pushing the memory of the old location from mind, so that one can more easily recall the new location. Being able to selectively forget is a useful component of memory that allows people to focus on, and thereby, facilitate retrieval of contextually relevant information from their surroundings. The current study, using the Think/No-Think (TNT) paradigm, attempted to determine how actively avoiding thought for a visual image would affect a person's ability to later recognize that item. The stimuli used were neutral words paired with complex visual-spatial pictures of faces or nature scenes. The results indicate that, relative to baseline memory performance, there is an overall inhibition of memory for items that were actively not thought about. These findings validate the hypothesis that actively avoiding thought of a picture leads to impaired recognition of that picture at a later time. Subjects' were less confident in their ability to recognize which word-picture pairs they had seen earlier. Actively thinking of a picture in some cases facilitated memory of that word-picture pair, but this was not consistent across all stimuli. These findings support the everyday use of memory inhibition by indicating that humans are able to exert executive control over what they think or don't think about, which later influences what they remember. Choosing to avoid thinking about a picture, even when presented with its cue, leads to inhibition of that memory, making it harder to recognize at a later time.