Developing Intelligence

Imagine you are invisible. Congratulations, you are now actually less likely to remember what you were doing a few minutes ago, and possibly a lot longer ago than that. At least, this is the basic finding from a 2002 article by Sahakyan & Kelley, who showed that when people are asked to forget something they’d learned, they may actually do this by rapidly changing their internal context in a way that is similar to what happens if, say, you’re asked to imagine that you’re invisible.

In the laboratory, this is usually studied in the “directed forgetting paradigm,” in which subjects learn a series of items (List 1) to a certain performance criterion, and then half of the subjects are told to forget those items. All the subjects then learn a second list of items (List 2), and are all subsequently tested on their recall of both List 2 and List 1 items. Typically, the results show that directed forgetting actually works – subjects who were told to forget List 1 actually are worse at recalling it later, even if offered money to do so. In addition, subjects who were told to forget List 1 are also better at recalling List 2, which may reflect “escape from proactive interference” (i.e., if you forget the first list, it’s less likely to interfere with your memory for items in the second list.)

Some theories suggest that people are actively inhibiting the List 1 items when told to forget them. In contrast, Sahakyan & Kelley hypothesized that people are not actively inhibiting them, but merely changing their “internal context”, such that those items are now less likely to be retrieved. At first, this hypothesis may seem very abstract, but it actually rests on a well-accepted finding in the memory literature known as “encoding specificity.” Briefly, this principle states that you may be more likely to remember a childhood experience if you’re walking around your childhood home; or you may be more likely to remember a studied fact during an exam if you’re in a similar mood as when you studied it before. Encoding specificity has been shown in terms of mood, smells, and the physical environment.

To test this idea, the authors asked subjects to report their strategies during a directed forgetting experiment – sure enough, some reported “thinking of something else, such as the upcoming wedding of a sister.” In a subsequent experiment, they asked all subjects to imagine that they were invisible (and to state what they would do while invisible) after learning List 1 items. The results showed that all subjects showed that directed forgetting and “imagining you’re invisible” have similar effects on recall, both decreasing List 1 recall and increase List 2 recall by similar amounts relative to a control group. A subsequent experiment showed this “internal contextual change” manipulation in directed forgetting seems very similar to previous work involving a external (ie, environmental) context change between the lists.

It would be interesting to know how far into memory the effects of internal context change can actually extend. For example, are you less likely to remember everything after specifying a new context? Are you more likely to remember childhood experiences, perhaps a time when you also imagined you were invisible, or 10 feet tall? These are probably intractable but nonetheless very interesting questions for future research.

A recently published article cites an in-press follow-up to this study, in which they showed the effects of internal context to be even stronger among those with higher working memory spans. Unsworth & Engle have interpreted this to reflect improved context maintenance skills in those with high working memory capacity. I’m still waiting to get my hands on a copy of that paper, but will post an update when I do…

Related Posts:
Reworking Working Memory


  1. #1 Mitch Harden
    March 27, 2007

    Recently I read a paper by Fenske & Raymond (Affective influence of Selective Attention) in which they had participants actively inhibit certain images. Afterwards they rated the otherwise neutral images poorly (or at least less joyful than they would without active inhibition). I wonder if this “internal context” change results in the same sort of depreciation of value that is found in active inhibition, or if this could be used to differentiate between the two phenomena.

  2. #2 Peter Delaney
    March 29, 2007

    It was nice to see someone reads these papers besides directed forgetting researchers 🙂

    Just for the record, we sent you the Delaney & Sahakyan “in press” paper a week or so ago, so hopefully you have it in your stack of to-be-read items. If not I can resend it.

    Also, we’re no longer thinking escape from proactive interference is the way to explain why people do better on List 2 after they change contexts (or try to forget List 1). Sahakyan has now proposed a two-factor account that attributes List 1 forgetting to context change (the Sahakyan & Kelley idea you outlined) but the better List 2 memory to changes in encoding strategy (Sahakyan & Delaney, 2003). For the past few years, she has been collecting evidence that the List 1 costs can be obtained without the List 2 benefits, and vice versa.

  3. #3 charles joyce
    March 30, 2007

    I think you shall have to explain your concept in the much broader way. Scientists are doing experiments on telepathy by sending/transmitting photons in a lab somewhere in california. Even just recently I have read an article on similar subject with some new flavour on design site .You shall better visit to get something more rational viewpoints.

  4. #4 Narender
    October 15, 2007

    Common its more like a phylosophy…I mean yeah I read couple of good books relative to the subject ; even your one is no different …Can you give me any rationale behind how shall we accomplish that…It’s more like a sweet dreaming…without any sense…Do you have any idea w.r.t. to gravitational forces and their impact on the motion and relative push to help us move somewhere in the Universe..I mean they are the only original forces which are to say Yes they are!!!! So any variation in its functioning can have unpredictable results…O.K. this topic has no relation with the subject but their is some rationale behind it …That May Be We Can…

  5. #5 Sai BPO Services Ltd UK
    April 9, 2008

    a large part of daily mental activity might involve telling ourselves what NOT to think or remember. For example, we may find that a certain train of thought leads to illogical consequences, and avoid it because it is unproductive and a waste of time.

    An interesting direction for future research would be to extend the paradigms to concept of censors by examining the effects of repeated attempts to forget or suppress particular thoughts.

    Sai BPO Services (UK) Ltd
    Web design and Web development

  6. #6 May
    October 6, 2009

    Hi Chris,
    I am very interested to hear your view about a later report following the research quoted in your article: Imagination, Memory and Context in the Directed Forgetting Paradigm (Mar 22, 2007).

    Have you read “Intentional Forgetting is easier after two “shots” than one” (published in the Journal Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition: 2008; Vol.34, No. 2 pgs 408-414?

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