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Embarrassing middle school pranks, awkward quarter-life antics and terrifying flashbacks from the past - could all be a distant memory.Researchers at the University of St Andrews in Scotland are testing ways to help people forget their not so pleasant recollections.

Malcolm MacLeod, a Psychology and Neuroscience Professor, had been conducting research on memory and the means in which people can improve their memory.But his research took a turn when he pondered if the steps to improve memory could be reversed, to help a person improve their ability to forget.

'Autobiographical memory is so vivid, so rich, that it's going to be incredibly difficult to keep from mind those sorts of events that you've personally experienced,' MacLeod and his co-researcher, Saima Noreen, said about their doubts before they began their research, in comments to WNYC-Radio.The pair decided to try and investigate measures that might help individuals held hostage to painful memories that were contributing to severe psychological disorders like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

To research the topic, the pair devised an experiment where subjects were shown a series of 24 words, like barbecue, theater and rapid.

When the participants were shown the words, they were instructed to create one personal memory for each word and write it down.A week after they were shown the words and recorded a memory for each word, the participants returned and reviewed what they had written down.

Then the researchers placed the subjects in front of a computer screen where the 24 words would flash, in either green or red. If the word appeared in green, the person was told to repeat the memory that corresponded to the word.But if the word appeared in red, the person was told to not think at all about the memory.

The words flashed before participants multiple times and when the words appeared in red, subjects started to simply picture a blank or distract their thinking so they wouldn't ponder the word and the memory associated. At the end of the experiment, researchers found there had been a drop in subjects' memories.

'There was a significant forgetting effect, about a 12 per cent drop in the level of details recalled,' MacLeod said.'That's a large effect,' he added. While the researchers are optimistic that the exercise could aid those with tormenting memories, it is unclear how long the forgetting effect will last.


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