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A Guide to How to Forget

Usually my memory topics are about improving memory, but a Brainpower Newsletter subscriber wrote to ask me if I could do an article on how to forget something. He had memories of things that kept coming up and interfering with his ability to concentrate on whatever he needed to be concentrating on.

Of course, any direct attempt to try to forget something generally isn't going to work. If I told you right now to not think about a red balloon as big as a house, to avoid at all costs any thought about that huge red balloon floating in the sky, you might just have an image of a red balloon. It would probably be there in your mind for just about as long as you kept telling yourself, "stop thinking about that!"

The same is true when you tell yourself to stop thinking about anything. What are you doing when you say "don't think about x?" You are bringing your attention to the very thing you want to forget. That provides the insight necessary for getting something out of your mind.

Attention is limited. You can only focus on so many things at a time, and the less you focus on something the more it fades away in your mind. So the key to how to forget something is to place your attention somewhere else.

Don't think you can overpower a memory. It will almost certainly be in your mind for - well, for the rest of your life. But if whenever it arises you consciously turn your attention to something else, it generally will lose its power to bother you. It will come up less often, and be weaker.

It may help to label it, as some people do when thoughts arise during meditation. For example, suppose an unwanted memory starts to form and interfere with your mental work. You might note it and say "memory," or "feeling" or "reaction." Something more specific may help depending on the case, like "just a thought based on fear." Then you can immediately turn your attention to something more productive. Do this enough and the thoughts you don't want to distract you will "leave" more quickly.

Another thing that may help is to write the intruding thoughts down on some sort of to-do list, whether they are memories or future plans or worries or whatever. For example, you might make a note to deal with a memory on Friday. The idea here is that this "categorizing" of a thought as something "to be dealt with on Friday" makes it easier for your mind to drop it now. Of course, if it is just a matter of unnecessary dwelling on something, when Friday comes along you can look at the list, cross off the item and maybe write next to it "not necessary."

Those last two "tricks" may be more or less helpful depending on the way your own mental habits, but key is to remember that you are actually in charge of your attention. And though strictly speaking this doesn't really tell you how to completely forget something, your memories are not a problem when they are put in their proper place. That means putting your attention in the right place - the place of your choosing.

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