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Can we unlearn things?

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Somehow, we never seem to be able to unlearn this lyrics to the Go Compare advert…

Asked by: Mia Lee, Glasgow


To some extent, yes.

Psychologists have tested this in various ways, including asking people to spend time learning pairs of words, and then asking them to deliberately forget some of them. Future memory for the deliberately forgotten words tends to be poorer.

More recently, researchers have extended this concept to show that people can unlearn behavioural habits acquired in the lab (such as particular finger movements paired with specific words), and they’ve found that after a period of deliberately not thinking about a particular autobiographical episode from their lives, people show a loss of memory details for that episode.


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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.


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