Telling yourself to forget about things actually works, study finds

(Photo: Global News)

Feeling overwhelmed lately? Too many things on your mind? You could remedy that by telling yourself to just stop thinking about it.

A study by US researchers has found that giving yourself verbal or mental instructions to clear your mind can help make room in your brain for more productive thoughts.

Yes, it is as simple as that.

“We found that if you really want a new idea to come into your mind, you need to deliberately force yourself to stop thinking about the old one,” study co-author Professor Marie Banich at University of Colorado Boulder said.   

And meditation is a great way to declutter our busy minds.   

The researchers examined brain activity in 60 volunteers who tried to flush a thought from their working memory.

Working memory is the ‘scratch pad’ of the mind where we store thoughts temporarily to help us carry out tasks. 

As they lay down for fMRI scans, they were shown pictures of faces, fruits and scenes and asked to maintain the thought of them for four seconds.   

Participants were then told to replace a thought with a different one (for example, ‘replace apple with mountain’), clear the mind of all thought (akin to mindfulness meditation) or suppress the thought (focus on it and then deliberately try to stop thinking about it). 

Meanwhile, researchers created individualised ‘brain signatures’ – images showing precisely what each person’s brain looked like when they thought of each picture, from the fMRI scans. 

In each case, the brain signature associated with the image visibly faded, the team found, after analysing the scans with machine learning. 

‘We were thrilled,’ said Professor Banich. ‘This is the first study to move beyond just asking someone, “Did you stop thinking about that?” 

The findings suggest that to fully purge a problematic memory that keeps bubbling up, one might need to deliberately focus on it and then push it away.

The study has been published in the journal Nature Communications