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Forgiveness and forgetting - Your guide to a tidy mind

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Forgiveness and forgetting - Your guide to a tidy mind

Practicing forgiveness isn’t always easy. It can take time to build up to the mental state where you feel ready to forgive, and even afterwards it can take mental energy to stay comfortable with your decision.

However, recent studies indicate that forgiving may be the key to forgetting, and therefore deprioritizing any negative feelings you might still hold.

In this post we explore:

Why does forgiving help to reduce negative feelings?

Recent research published in the journal Psychological Science found that the act of forgiveness itself can lead someone to forget the offence in question.

Researchers asked 30 participants to imagine that an individual close to them had hurt them in some way. They then attempted to train the participants to forget the incident. The researchers found that participants who had already forgiven the offense in question were more likely to forget.

As to why this is, the authors of the study speculate:

“Although the exact relationship between forgiveness and forgetting remains unclear, one possibility is that forgiveness may lower the tendency to ruminate or to constantly think about a particular offence. Rumination typically involves looking inwards and thinking negatively.”

The better we are at not retaliating, the easier it is to forgive. This control enables us to free ourselves of the pain and hurt that comes with dwelling on the past.

How does the brain forget?

So it seems that forgiving a misdeed can help us to forget it and then move on, but how does the brain forget memories?

“In daily life, forgetting actually has clear advantages. Imagine, for instance, that you lost your bank card. The new card you receive will come with a new personal identification number (PIN). Research in this field suggests that each time you remember the new PIN, you gradually forget the old one. This process improves access to relevant information, without old memories interfering.”

Source: Fiona Kumfor, Postdoctoral fellow, and Sicong Tu, PhD Candidate, Neuroscience Research Australia

Research shows that in order to remember what is important, we need to forget what isn’t important. This can happen at two levels in the brain. First, a “cleaning” of irrelevant information as we retain and consolidate our memories, and second, a “blocking” of irrelevant information when we try to retrieve a memory.

Forgetting while we sleep

Recent research sheds new light on how the process happens.

In a series of studies published in Science, researchers demonstrate that “forgetting happens only during retention (not when we encode or retrieve memories), and that sleep is the period of the day when MCH neurons clean the memory of all the irrelevant clutter.”

Source: The Conversation

They obtained the results by injecting chemicals into the brain of mice in order to inhibit the MCH neurons. Amazingly, the mice performed better on two specific memory tasks as a result – recognising new objects and a fear conditioning test.

‘The forgetting frequency’

In a collaborative project, researchers from universities across Europe analysed what happens in the brain when humans want to voluntarily forget something. They identified two areas of the brain - the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus - whose activity patterns synchronise during the process of forgetting.

The researchers recorded the brain activity of 22 patients who had electrodes implanted either in the prefrontal cortex or in the hippocampus. They presented the participants with a number of words, asking them either to remember or to forget them. A test showed that the participants remembered the words that they were supposed to forget less well than the words they were supposed to remember.

As they conducted the analysis, the researchers paid close attention to the synchronous rhythmic activity in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. During active forgetting, oscillations in both areas of the brain showed characteristic changes in specific frequency bands.

"The data showed us that during active forgetting, the activity in the hippocampus, an important region for memory, is regulated by the prefrontal cortex," the researchers explained.

How to be better at forgiveness

It’s not easy to change your personality overnight. If you find it difficult to forgive, simply wishing you were better at it might not be enough. Luckily, the power of psychology is here to help.

The trick to changing the way your brain thinks is novelty.

When you’re presented with something new and exciting, your brain releases the chemical dopamine - the ‘feel good’ hormone that accompanies things like eating your favorite foods, and even doing something kind for a stranger.

Psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang argues that one good way to change your thinking habits is a vacation. With new sights, sounds, smells, and activities, you’re helping your brain explore and energize with new pathways.

This change of scene is also good for making new habits.

In a widely cited study from 2005, researchers discovered that students who transferred to another college were more likely to change their daily habits than students who remained at the same place.

So if you’re looking to become a more forgiving person, you could try writing out a letter to someone you hold a grudge against while on vacation. You don’t have to send it, but the act of pushing yourself to forgive in a new location will help your brain stick with this habit.


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