The mental context in which we experience an event plays a fundamental role in how we organize our memories of an event (e.g. in relation to other events) and, in turn, how we retrieve those memories later. Because we use contextual representations to retrieve information pertaining to our past, processes that alter our representations of context can enhance or diminish our capacity to retrieve particular memories. We designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiment to test the hypothesis that people can intentionally forget previously experienced events by changing their mental representations of contextual information associated with those events. We had human participants study two lists of words, manipulating whether they were told to forget (or remember) the first list prior to studying the second list. We used pattern classifiers to track neural patterns that reflected contextual information associated with the first list and found that, consistent with the notion of contextual change, the activation of the first-list contextual representation was lower following a forget instruction than a remember instruction. Further, the magnitude of this neural signature of contextual change was negatively correlated with participants’ abilities to later recall items from the first list.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
- Directed forgetting
- Episodic memory