Moderate levels of activation lead to forgetting in the think/no-think paradigm

Greg J. Detre, Annamalai Natarajan, Samuel J. Gershman, Kenneth A. Norman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

72 Scopus citations


Using the think/no-think paradigm (Anderson & Green, 2001), researchers have found that suppressing retrieval of a memory (in the presence of a strong retrieval cue) can make it harder to retrieve that memory on a subsequent test. This effect has been replicated numerous times, but the size of the effect is highly variable. Also, it is unclear from a neural mechanistic standpoint why preventing recall of a memory now should impair your ability to recall that memory later. Here, we address both of these puzzles using the idea, derived from computational modeling and studies of synaptic plasticity, that the function relating memory activation to learning is U-shaped, such that moderate levels of memory activation lead to weakening of the memory and higher levels of activation lead to strengthening. According to this view, forgetting effects in the think/no-think paradigm occur when the suppressed item activates moderately during the suppression attempt, leading to weakening; the effect is variable because sometimes the suppressed item activates strongly (leading to strengthening) and sometimes it does not activate at all (in which case no learning takes place). To test this hypothesis, we ran a think/no-think experiment where participants learned word-picture pairs; we used pattern classifiers, applied to fMRI data, to measure how strongly the picture associates were activating when participants were trying not to retrieve these associates, and we used a novel Bayesian curve-fitting procedure to relate this covert neural measure of retrieval to performance on a later memory test. In keeping with our hypothesis, the curve-fitting procedure revealed a nonmonotonic relationship between memory activation (as measured by the classifier) and subsequent memory, whereby moderate levels of activation of the to-be-suppressed item led to diminished performance on the final memory test, and higher levels of activation led to enhanced performance on the final test.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2371-2388
Number of pages18
Issue number12
StatePublished - Oct 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • FMRI
  • Inhibition
  • Memory
  • Plasticity


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