Most of us are searching for ways to remember but some people want to find a way to forget. Painful, emotional memories that people would most like to forget may be the toughest to leave behind, especially when memories are created through visual cues–things you SEE.

Psychologist Keith Payne says, "When you?re watching the news on television and see footage of wounded soldiers in Iraq or ongoing coverage of national tragedies, it may stick with you more than a newspaper headline." Together with psychologist Elizabeth Corrigan, he found that even "mild" emotional events, like getting a bad grade on a test or a negative comment from a coworker, can be hard to forget. But they’ve developed a technique: when people are trying to intentionally forget information, they need to mentally segregate that information and then block off the information they don?t want to retrieve. It’s the same method that spies learn in order to keep secrets.

Emotion undermines both of those steps. Payne says, "You make a lot of connections between emotional events and other parts of your life, so it might be difficult to isolate them. As far as blocking retrieval of an unwanted event, emotion makes events very salient and therefore highly accessible. The word ‘murder,’ for instance, may or may not make you afraid, but if you see a graphic, violent picture, it may be powerful enough emotionally to change the way you feel." This is yet another reason (besides concern for your fellow drivers) why you shouldn’t "rubber neck" when you pass a car wreck on the highway, hoping to see injured drivers and passengers. If you DO get a glimpse of them, the combination of visual cues and the emotions they bring up will make the image very hard to forget.

"Our findings add to accumulating evidence that emotion places limits on the ability to control the contents of the mind," Payne says. "Our results suggest that even a relatively mild emotional reaction can undermine intentional forgetting. But this doesn?t necessarily mean that emotional memories can never be intentionally forgotten. If the motivation to forget is powerful enough, individuals might be able to overcome the effects of emotion by enlisting additional coping strategies."

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