After a traumatic event, people often experience intrusive thoughts about the experience. Such memories can be powerfully distressing, so survivors of trauma typically report that they try to suppress them. Fortunately, intrusive thoughts tend to decline over time. But up to now, researchers have not known how this happens: is it merely that memories of a trauma naturally fade as time passes? Or can trying to suppress these memories serve as a kind of training ground for control over one’s thoughts, improving memory suppression through practice? Michael Anderson’s group at the CBU set out to find out. Using a psychological experiment called a Think-No-Think task, which involves trying to selectively forget certain words, they assessed their participants’ abilities to suppress information with different emotional valences. Across two experiments, the team found that participants with a greater history of trauma were better able to intentionally forget neutral and negative words, and exhibited greater forgetting overall. So while intrusive memories are a challenging symptom that many survivors of trauma face, it seems that fighting these memories can give people an opportunity to gain better control over their thoughts. These findings cast light on potential strategies to foster resilience after trauma.
Hulbert JC, Anderson MC. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: Psychological trauma and its relationship to enhanced memory control. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2018 Dec;147(12):1931-1949. doi: 10.1037/xge0000461. Epub 2018 Jul 19. PMID: 30024184; PMCID: PMC6277128.