There are plenty of people who might benefit from intentionally forgetting certain memories—those who've been in combat, or suffered some form of abuse, for instance, and consequently struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now researchers at Dartmouth report in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that they've figured out a way to help people do that through "contextually mediated intentional forgetting." In less academic jargon: If we want to forget certain memories, we should try to clear our minds of the context related to them. "It's like intentionally pushing thoughts of your grandmother's cooking out of your mind if you don't want to think about your grandmother at that moment," says lead author Jeremy Manning in a press release. "We were able to physically measure and quantify that process using brain data."
In their brain imaging study of 25 participants ages 19 to 34, researchers found that if they alternated images of words and outdoor scenes—think forests or beaches—and then asked participants to try to forget those words, people tried to "flush out" thoughts related to the images. Those who most successfully pushed those images out of mind recalled the fewest number of words. So to forget an awkward conversation, Manning tells Live Science we should try to forget other things that happened in the background as it took place: the song playing, for instance, perhaps by thinking of another song. As Manning puts it, "If you don't want to think of the color blue, you think of green things instead." (In other news, memories lost to dementia may be retrievable.)