Everyone has had a few things in their life that they’d like to forget ever happened. That time in third grade choir when you barfed on Nancy Kemmelmeister while performing “America the Beautiful” at the spring all-school concert. That time your cat was sick and you texted your credit card number to the Hope and Prayer Ministry when their robo-calling minister asked if you were in need of urgent prayer. Or that first day of the Florida winter vacation when you fell asleep on the beach before putting on any sunscreen.
People have tried many techniques for erasing unwanted memories. Instead of remembering the day my girlfriend threw all my stuff onto the curb and changed the locks on our apartment, I try to remember all the good things that happened in our relationship, but my mind always comes back to trying to tug one of my favorite tennis shoes out of the mouth of our neighbor’s Rottweiler. Other people have tried to use hypnotism to obliterate their memories or bodywork, like Reiki, to locate the most painful memories and literally rub them out.
But a study published recently in the Journal of Neurosciencepoints to a new way to finally rid ourselves of some of the awful experiences that repeatedly come back to mind. It is called intentional forgetting. To intentionally forget is to remember differently, on purpose. Intentional forgetting seems to come naturally to some people. (I’m thinking of a particular four-year-old who said that his little brother stole the cookies he had stuffed in his pockets.) It might also be called the ability to believe your own lies. But it is important to note that scientists think that intentional forgetting may be an ability that can be practiced and improved. In the same way that you can become better at remembering facts, you can also get better at believing that the facts you make up are true.
People have a misconception that accessing a memory is kind of like accessing a library book or computer file. They think that if you have a good system for organizing your memories you should be able to locate them whenever you choose. But anyone who has ever unsuccessfully searched their house multiple times for their keys or wallet knows that memories can shift and even seemingly make things disappear before our eyes. How many times have you embarrassed yourself trying to introduce a new friend to an old one only to find you’ve somehow suddenly forgotten both of their names?
It turns out that memory is not a static but rather a dynamic process. Every time we remember something from our past we are reimagining it in the present. We have the ability to alter, even to completely change history if we choose, and I’m doing my best to put this finding to use.
Now, when I remember when I was ten and Mark Gardner picked me up over his head, spun me around several times, and speared me headfirst into the playground sending me to the emergency room for stitches, I will not dwell on how sick and stupid I felt for trying to punch someone who outweighed me by fifty pounds and looked like a gorilla. Instead, I will focus on the excitement of getting to ride for the first and only time in the front seat of a police car, and getting to repeatedly push the button that made the siren go on and off.
Now instead of feeling bad when I remember yelling at and locking up my aging dog Sadie in the basement when she could no longer control her bladder, I will remember her fabulous last days when I let her off the leash as we took our walks and allowed her to explore the garbage, poop, and dead animals in neighbors’ yards to her heart’s content, until she finally gorged herself on something particularly foul that finally did her in. Sadie was a smart dog but over the course of our lives together she did a lot of stupid things that I’m sure she immediately forgot about. I have to believe that if she could she would forgive me for the stupid things I’m trying to forget.
Some people may worry that losing your memory is a sign of old age. But if we can selectively control what to forget it may instead give us a new age and a second chance at life. You weren’t a failed gardener but instead a successful breeder of wild rabbits, groundhogs, and deer. You didn’t blow your life savings on a worthless management degree from the Golf Academy of America, you gained the inner peace that comes from discovering that you have nothing left to lose (along with the satisfaction of slashing the tires of the school owner’s Maserati when you spotted it in the parking lot of the country club where you now mow grass). Life is what we make it and whoever said you can’t change the past simply never perfected the art of lying to one’s self.