Is it possible to "unsee" something?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they are talking about. Today we wondered, can we forget something we once so clearly saw?
Trauma has been known to do strange things to the mind. Whether walking in on your parents having sex as a child, or something we can't as easily laugh off as adults, there are just some things we wish we could un-see.
With all the representations of repressed memories in popular culture and the media, we know there is some way to kind of "unsee," but we weren’t sure exactly how this phenomena really works. We turned to the experts and interviewed a mnemonist, three psychologists, and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) to find out if it's really possible by delving deeper into the concepts and mechanics of memory.
Mnemonist and memory athlete
On one reading of this question, the answer is obvious; we all forget things all the time. In this sense, we can certainly "un-see" things. A natural next question, and one which is harder to answer, is "Why do we forget at all?"
We tend to think of memory as a monolithic cognitive ability. In fact, remembering actually involves a number of different processes and systems. For instance, one reason we might fail to remember something is because we simply weren't paying enough attention when we were first exposed to it. Think of the most common coin in your wallet or purse. Which way does the head on that coin face? To the left or to the right? Even though you've no doubt seen this coin hundreds of times you might find this a difficult question to answer because, to quote the memorious Sherlock Holmes, "You see, but do not observe." We can all improve our ability to remember; therefore, by learning what it feels like to be paying attention, we can get better at recognizing when we aren't! Conversely, if you want to "un-see" something, do something distracting! Because it is so absorbing, the video game Tetris is currently being tested as a potential prophylaxis for posttraumatic stress disorder.
Once our experiences have made their way into longterm memory, they are much more robust, but are still surprisingly plastic. Our memories are not perfect reproductions of past events that we pull up like files on a computer when we need them. Rather, our perception of the world is constantly colored by the things we think, believe and know, all of which reside in our memories. Cognitive science has revealed the surprising fact that there is no clear line between remembering and creating, that recalling a memory actually changes it. Consequently, although we might not be able to unsee those things which have made their way into long term memory, we can change those experiences and how we relate to them in dramatic and surprising ways.
Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, specializing in long term episodic memory, memory of past emotions, and memory of long term relationships
The question, I assume, refers to the idea that you see something you didn't want to see, and then somehow want to unsee it—in other words, wipe it out of your memory. My short answer is no; you can't unsee something in the sense that you have very little control over blocking something out like that. The way memory works for arousing stimuli, such as disturbing footage of a police shooting or of a war scene, is that the emotional arousal primes the memory for strong consolidation, and then the epinephrine and other excitatory neurotransmitters strengthen the consolidation over a period of minutes, hours, and days. All of this is out of our conscious control. All we can do is wait for time to help the memory fade (through a process of decay involving the very gradual breaking down of synapses), although if we revisit the scene often, the memory will be continually restrengthened, thus delaying the decay process. The only other way you might be able to prevent the disturbing scene from consolidating strongly would be to take a drug that counteracts the epinephrine release that follows a disturbing scene. For example propranolol (see Pitman et al., 2002) or perhaps another drug that has relaxing effects might be a candidate, drugs that might slightly take the edge off the strength of consolidation. Surprisingly though, although you might expect alcohol to help "unsee" something, there was research that found that alcohol actually enhanced an aspect of memory consolidation (Bruce & Pihl, 1997).
31% of all rape victims developed PTSD sometime in their lifetime.
11% still suffers from PTSD today.
Rape victims are 6.2 times more likely to develop PTSD than women who have never been victims of crime.
Jill Edelstein LCSW
Focusing-oriented therapist and trainer, practitioner of EMDR therapy, CBT, IFS; has served as a clinical affiliate of National Institute of Psychotherapies’ Integrative Trauma Treatment Program (ITP)
"Unseeing" seems like another way to conceive of the limits of knowing and memory.
There is probably a neuroscience way of explaining how eyes receive and process sensory data. How the brain then acts upon it, how the data acts upon the brain, and how all of that shapes and is shaped by the complexity of the always-changing body (including other sensory processing outlets such as ears, skin, nose) in motion in the world.
I engage with these processes where they show up in a person who wants to overcome obstacles to interacting with self, other and the world. This would include “seeing” self and other more clearly. I try to help with the seeing and acting upon troublesome psychosocial-emotional-spiritual things that formed along the way to help that person survive up until now, but which no longer serve.
By “seeing” maybe we mean something less concrete. When we say, “I can see your point of view” or “See what I mean?” we are not talking about eyesight or optic nerves. We mean understanding, grasping, apprehending, getting, grokking. Can we un-grok something? Can we misplace, intentionally or otherwise, or trash something we once understood or knew?
I have known or “gotten” people and then over time I have stopped getting them. The way I “see” them has changed. I may decide I no longer wish to see them. That is one way to “unsee” someone.
Another way to frame this is with parts language. A part may “see” (by direct visual/auditory/tactile/olfactory reception) or know (having digested and integrated that input) about something new like, "My spouse no longer does the things that have upset me in the past such as: saying unflattering things about my mother and strangers on the subway, doing a poor job of managing their anger and not doing the dishes in a timely fashion."
At the same time, another part has a belief that the relationship is preventing full self-expression and joy. Part two has somehow (long story as to why and how) become more powerful than part one and so overtakes it, obscuring the new information like cloud cover. So the new information is inaccessible and the new behaviors might not even register. The new information is unseen. A stronger case can now be made for ending the relationship since the person doesn’t know about the changed behavior, or doesn’t register a good part of it.
Which leads me to conclude that, rather than unseeing, there is cloud cover. I don’t know what happens to the information while it is beneath the clouds. Then again, I don’t care if the tree makes a sound in the forest when nobody is there to hear it. It’s what we do once we hear it and see it on the ground. Here, “see” can mean “dignify” or “register as existing.” Yes, there is a fallen tree. Filling your brain with new information can make that tree smaller and smaller until it is unseen.
A published study conducted with 12 participants as Northwestern University concludes that all subjects distorted memories over three sessions.
The processes of memory encoding and retrieval are achieved by a combination of chemicals and electricity.
Memories, in the form of a pulse, are transferred across a synapses.
The gap between synapses, the synaptic cleft, is approximately 20 millionths of a millimeter.
A typical brain has well over 100 trillion synapses and up to 1,000 synapses.
Dr. Steven Alter, PhD
Psychologist in New York City, faculty member at the Derner Institute of Advance Psychological Studies
As to the question of whether we can unsee something, one of the fascinating capacities of the human psyche is that we are motivated to maintain a sense of psychological order. If an experience overwhelms us, the mind reacts by changing the way the experience is remembered. If something is traumatic, the mind may lose its capacity to store an experience in an organized manner. Motivated forgetting was Freud’s starting point in his development of psychoanalytic theory. He posited that several different levels of consciousness dynamically operate within the mind. If an experience or even a fantasy threatens to overwhelm us with anxiety, the mind may repress the conscious traces of it. His primary focus was on how actual or imagined sexual experiences could threaten the integrity of the ego. One example of unseeing was in his discussion of the primal scene. He posited that children were traumatized by witnessing their parents having intercourse, which elicits both fear and excitement beyond what the child can handle. As such, the child represses the image into the unconscious.
When something has been repressed, however, it does not disappear. It is still stored in the deep recesses of mind and may break into consciousness at any moment. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory and students of the effects of trauma have focused on a different type of unseeing, namely dissociation. While Freud posited that the mind represses in order to keep anxiety at tolerable levels, dissociation occurs when a person has been severely traumatized. These experiences are so overwhelming that the mind becomes disorganized and fragmented, and these experiences are not processed or stored in the normal manner. Thus, it is not that we are unseeing something, but that all of our senses stop working in tandem and the whole experience of the traumatic event is not perceived in a unified manner. Thus, the event was only partially seen in the first place. An individual may have a vague perception of a trauma, but it is not a coherent gestalt.
There has been extensive debate around repressed memories.
A study published in the Journal of Psychological Science showed that women who have reported having repressed memories were 40% more likely to remember things that never happened.
Melvin Bornstein, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Training and Supervising Analyst, Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute
In one of Sigmund Freud’s first psychological papers, he wrote that he discovered that patients with mental illness suffer from reminiscences. He meant memories that a patient tries to “unsee,” or to eliminate, because they were too painful to live with and go on living with, cannot be gotten rid of. They are split off, made into fragments that are not part of the flow of the patient’s life. When this happens, they do not really disappear, they remain, but act as outlaws of the mind.
The patients grow normally and everything is experienced in the perspective of the here and now. That is, there are memories and current events. Not with the outlaws though; instead, the bad things that happened are not experienced as memories. They feel real and attach themselves onto anything in the present moment.
PTSD afflicts an estimated 31% of Vietnam veterans, 10% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans, and 11% of veterans of the war in Afghanistan.