You can forget your ex by listening to soundwaves, science says

3 mins
26 Oct 2022
You can forget your ex by listening to soundwaves, science says

Sort of… it’s worth a go!

image Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus Features, 2004

words Rhys Thomas

We’ve all had that relationship that is abnormally hard to shake off. Perhaps they were actually quite nice and it just wasn’t meant to be, or perhaps you were just a bit of a fool. It happens, we do eventually, move. But what if we could just forget about it all waaaaay quicker, and without going to technicians at Lacuna to have weird computer stuff done like they do in Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind?

Turns out the University of York might have a solution for you. A little while back, their research found that playing ‘sound cues’ to people while they slept was able to boost specific memories. And now, they have discovered that the reverse is also possibly true – we can likely use these sound cues to forget memories too.

For this study, 29 participants were told to memorise two words as being related. Examples of word pairings included ‘hammer – office’ and ‘hammer – Cardi B’. Then they were told to stay overnight in the University of York’s sleep lab. Here, the research team analysed their brainwaves. When the participants reached deep or slow-wave sleep (also known as stage-three sleep) the researchers quietly played a recording of the word hammer (but not of office or Cardi B).

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When they did this test before, the participants remembered the words more, and that’s where the test ended. This time, they realised that as well as remembering certain words, participants were also forgetting others. This suggests it is possible to cause selective forgetting by playing associated sounds during sleep.

The breakthrough is still a little bit experimental at the moment, though it is super hopeful. The team believe it could potentially be developed into techniques to help weaken traumatic and intrusive memories, “that could be used alongside existing therapies” says Dr Bardur Joensen, the author of the paper. The next steps for the research team are to establish how these cues cause forgetting (as opposed to remembering). The hope is, if they can do that, they can turn the behaviour on and off in the brain, as this might allow any memories to be forgotten.

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Sleep is really closely linked to memory in general, with many studies showing that we often process memory in our sleep (dreams are an element of this). According to Sleep Foundation; “Not sleeping or getting enough sleep can lower your learning abilities by as much as 40%.” But it turns out that we might be able to manipulate those memories while we sleep.

So, yeah, perhaps one day we’ll be able to snooze while listening to recordings of words like “self love” and [insert ex’s name] only to wake up and not remember their name and to be thinking about loving ourselves. Alternatively, maybe there’ll be a way to revise while asleep, seeing as we can learn to remember things while hitting snooze. Not a bad way to spend eight hours, is it!

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