Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 12/19/21 4:13 AM

Opinion: Is suppression of memories the best way to move on?

Is suppression of memories the best way to move on?

The other day, I read an article that made me sit up startled. It was written by a neuroscientist and the topic was how to cleanse one`s mind of all past-thought baggage.

To cut to the chase, this neuroscientist felt that that best way to do the cleanse would be to suppress thoughts of the past. This bucks the de facto approach which encourages  the flow of pleasant and unpleasant thoughts into our head, to observe  them with some amount of detachment, then let them consciously flow out of aforementioned head. Other cope strategies include engaging with  these thoughts, trying to make sense of them, then relegating them into an empty corner of your mind, hopefully to turn to dust there.

Not every memory is a bad one, and so we let it linger on in some part of our brain for that instant shot of dopamine. Whether it`s a bad work day, a bad hair day,  a day of confrontation and conflict, shutting one`s eyes and playing  an instant recall clip of that trip to Croatia, that simply amazing dinner on the seashore at Gopalpur, that perfect reunion with your gang, that moment when your romantic relationship turned significant…any or all of these memories are instant morale-boosters, instant mood-uppers. So of course, we don’t want to jettison these feelgood thoughts and memories.

The bad memories, though, have in them an annihilating power. Just when things are going good for you, the memory of a past failure, in the workplace or in your personal life, can immediately cloak you in vulnerability, guilt, despondency. You are all set to pitch for a raise, ask for an upgrade in your responsibilities at work, then you remember how you were passed over at least twice before in your career. You are all set to put a ring on it in your personal relationship, then you remember how the trajectory of your love life has not been a  smooth one. You need to sit down and have that talk with your parent/sibling/Significant Other, only memories of unpleasant scenes effectively hinder your plans to put that relationship onto a better footing. You cringe with embarrassment at some of the memories, you wince with regret at others; your insecurities rise up quick and hard and suddenly, moving on becomes a tough ask.

However, neuroscientists doing a nascent study of this ‘mental housekeeping,’ are of the opinion that letting indiscriminate thoughts and memories crowd your brain is not the best way to live. Apparently,  a memory montage that ebbs and flows is good, as long as it keeps moving, leaving no residue.

Removing the memories and replacing them with others works, say the experts,  but it still means the removed memory sits somewhere inside your head. They also point out that clearing your mind of memories after giving it an allotted time in your head works,  but inevitably, at some point in the future, those memories come rushing back to either disrupt your move-on plan or disturb your equilibrium, sometimes in damaging fashion.

Since moving on calls for a relatively memory-free brain, some neuroscientists suggest that suppression is the best way forward. Which means rather than ignoring it, giving the memory, good or bad, a hard push away the moment it shows signs of entering your consciousness. Consciously taking the thought or memory out of your head has been found to be effective in preliminary studies conducted on the topic in the US. After a while, effectively blocking those thoughts even as they start to creep inside your head becomes easy, according to the scientists.

However, some clinical psychologists aver that this kind of emotional suppression involves a lot of mental energy. Suppression might work in the short term but psychologists aren’t sure it will in the long term.

Karuna Baskar, Managing Director, ResilienceWorks, a behavioural consultancy and counselling service provider,  states, “ Negative memories serve a purpose, in that they help ensure we do not repeat a mistake. So,  our goal may not always be to remove them altogether.

I would recommend that one first deals with the underlying issue, because just pushing away memories can result in them resurfacing. However,  once the memory has been processed to whatever extent possible, it is best not to continuously return to it; that would keep the distress alive. I would think a combination of suppression along with replacing with alternate thoughts, would be most effective when we are dealing with complex human memories and their associated emotions.“

Denying your memories access, refusing to let them live rent-free inside your head, closing the door on what is past sounds ideal but clearly, a lot of work still has to be done to establish the efficacy of suppression.

This appeared in  the NEWS TRAIL INDIA newspaper of 19 December 2021.

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Sheila Kumar • December 19, 2021

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