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Description: It is quite common for people to come out of an introductory psychology course with the general belief that most of Freud’s theory is no longer considered visible or appropriate in accounting for human experience and behavior. At the same time, some concepts that were given theoretic life by Freud are now viewed as part of general knowledge. Denial is one such concept. This Freudian defense mechanism is now commonly deployed in conversations about friends or relatives who are not accepting problems others clearly see that they have such a addictions, financial failures or relationship challenges. This is not to say that we need to revitalize Freudian theory but rather that it may help us move some concepts forward positively if we examine the parts of some concepts or clinical intervention strategies that have come to be viewed as being based on ‘Freudian’ general knowledge. How we think people deal or do not deal well with thoughts regarding past traumatic events is one such example. How does this sound: memories of disturbing events or experiences actively float about in our unconscious minds and take any and every opportunity to pop into consciousness and haunt and preoccupy us. Fits the old Freudian mold of how the unconscious works doesn’t it? More recent research seems to support this view. If you were told NOT to think about white bears for one hour how successful do you think you would be? Very likely not very successful. That result fits with the general notion of traumatic memories being active below the surface of consciousness. How about an alternative theoretic approach based on the possibility that we can actively forget things that we no longer wish to remember? Seems counter to the standard view of traumatic memories doesn’t it? If active forgetting is possible might it lead to new approaches to clinical treatment of those struggling with traumatic memories? Thinks about what that might involve and then have a read through the article linked below for a very readable account of this possibility.

Source: How to Stop Unwanted Thoughts, Ingrid Wickelgren, Scientific American

Date: October 19, 2022

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, active forgetting might turn out to be a very useful concept and lead to useful approaches to therapy. The idea that the rumination over particular problematic or anxiety producing thoughts in depression and anxiety might be clinically manipulatable and lead to reductions in the overall symptomology of anxiety and depression is very interesting. As well, the shift away from the ‘do not think of white bears’ approach to the think/no think approach offers a potential very useful change of approach and theoretic/clinical perspective on the possible treatment of unwanted troubling thoughts. It will be very interesting to see where this link in enquiry takes us!

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does the ‘white bear’ memory research paradigm involve?
  2. How is the think/no think memory research paradigm different than the ‘white bear’ memory research paradigm?
  3. What are some potential clinical treatment applications of the think/no think memory theory and research paradigm?

References (Read Further):

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(1), 5. Link

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Knutson, B., & McMahon, S. R. (1991). Polluting the stream of consciousness: The effect of thought suppression on the mind’s environment. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 141-152. Link

Wegner, D. M., & Gold, D. B. (1995). Fanning old flames: emotional and cognitive effects of suppressing thoughts of a past relationship. Journal of personality and social psychology, 68(5), 782. Link

Anderson, M. C., & Hulbert, J. C. (2021). Active forgetting: Adaptation of memory by prefrontal control. Annual Review of Psychology. Link

Paz-Alonso, P. M., Ghetti, S., Matlen, B. J., Anderson, M. C., & Bunge, S. A. (2009). Memory suppression is an active process that improves over childhood. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 24. Link

Levy, B. J., & Anderson, M. C. (2008). Individual differences in the suppression of unwanted memories: The executive deficit hypothesis. Acta psychologica, 127(3), 623-635. Link

Hulbert, J. C., Henson, R. N., & Anderson, M. C. (2016). Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications, 7(1), 1-9. Link

Apšvalka, D., Ferreira, C. S., Schmitz, T. W., Rowe, J. B., & Anderson, M. C. (2022). Dynamic targeting enables domain-general inhibitory control over action and thought by the prefrontal cortex. Nature communications, 13(1), 1-21. Link

Hertel, P. T., & Gerstle, M. (2003). Depressive deficits in forgetting. Psychological Science, 14(6), 573-578. Link