Motivated Forgetting

Michael C. Anderson and Simon Hanslmayr, ‘Neural Mechanisms of Motivated Forgetting’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18 (2014), 279-92.

It is widely agreed that we forget things because they decay over time, because memories interfere with one another, and because memories can be tied to physical contexts which, when removed, take the memory with them. This article assesses the evidence for more ‘motivated’ forgetting, whereby (for example) our brains work to make it harder for us to remember unpleasant experiences. They present evidence for neural activity (i) disrupting the representation and storage of these experiences in memory, and (ii) inhibiting their later retrieval. The lateral prefrontal cortex is especially associated with this means of ‘shaping the retention of our past’.


Literature might seem to be more about memory than forgetting. It stores representations of things, and it enables us to retrieve them under particular circumstances. Its many forms, devices, techniques, and strategies are mnemonic, then, in the ways in which they make both representation and retrieval more dynamic and appealing experiences. Things might slip away, but the effort aims at memory.
      However, there may be circumstances in which literature investigates the need to forget, and performs or inculcates a sort of ‘motivated forgetting’. Anderson and Hanslmayr give an interesting list of ‘motives’ for doing this: regulating negative affect, justifying inappropriate behaviour, maintaining beliefs and attitudes, deceiving oneself and others, preserving self-image, forgiving others, maintaining attachment. Any of these might arise as part of, or in tension with, a literary work; it might be helpful, for example, to a scene of mercy, for a certain amount of forgetting to complement the forgiving.


I shall offer a couple of examples: first, the end of Measure for Measure. Amongst the various participants in the denouement, perhaps the strangest is the unapologetic criminal Barnardine. We have met him before, in prison, where he was (understandably, but inconveniently) unwilling to provide his own head to convince Angelo that the death sentence had been carried out on Claudio. In the last scene, head still attached, he gets drawn into the merciful mood. The Duke turns to him:

      There was a friar told me of this man.
      Sirrah, thou art said to have a stubborn soul.
      That ,
      And squarest thy life according. Thou’rt condemn’d:
      But, for those earthly faults, I quit them all;
      And pray thee take this mercy to provide
      For better times to come. Friar, advise him;
      I leave him to your hand.

The other acts of forgiveness in this scene are much more meaningful to an audience, and there are some difficult things to take on. Whereas the Duke says he will ‘quit’ at least the earthly crimes of Barnardine, forgiving him, he and the audience might need instead to forget him. He reminds us of the strange plotting that has only just averted disaster, and he reminds that amnesty saves the bad as well as the good. The friar is interesting: for much of the play the Duke himself has taken on this role in disguise. Perhaps the friar acts like activation in the lateral prefrontal cortex, preventing us having to store or re-address much about Barnardine.


And there’s something going on in The Winter’s Tale, which ends like this (with King Leontes, who has just had his wife and daughter restored to him after his earlier fits of destructive jealousy, speaking). If you hover your mouse over the highlighted words you’ll see me try to trace a process through the speech:

      O, , Paulina!
      Thou shouldst a husband take by my consent,
      As I by thine a wife: this is a match,
      And made between’s by vows. Thou hast found mine;
      But how, is to be question’d; for I saw her,
      As I thought, , and have in vain said many
      A prayer upon her grave. I’ll not far –
      For him, I partly know his mind – to find thee
      An honourable husband. Come, Camillo,
      And take her by the hand, whose worth and honesty
      Is richly noted and here justified
      By us, a pair of kings. Let’s from this place.
      What! : both your pardons,
      That e’er I put between your holy looks
      My ill suspicion. This is your son-in-law,
      And son unto the king, who, heavens directing,
      Is troth-plight to your daughter. Good Paulina,
      Lead us from hence, where we may leisurely
      Each one to his part
      Perform’d in this wide gap of time since first
      We were dissever’d: lead away.

If this speech does perform a sort of motivated forgetting, it matters that we can see it happening. Leontes is trying to brush over things, perhaps with the best intentions. We can observe and assess this process as it happens in front of us, and possibly also to us at the same time. It may even be counter-productive: plenty of people remember Mamillius, the dead son of Leontes and Hermione, during these final moments. The King’s ‘haste’ might make us think more slowly. I do have my doubts about some aspects of the motivated forgetting article. Some of the things that my lateral prefrontal cortex is supposed to help with, past embarrassments especially, seem to come into my mind with alarming regularity. Perhaps the mechanism can backfire in reality as well as in fiction.


In future posts I hope to come back to this, to look at how motivated forgetting might be seen in other works. I would like to say something about lyric as well as drama; about something other than endings; and a bit more about what literature knows about this.

The point here is that Barnardine has no interest in the afterlife, no thought of heaven or hell. Forgiveness has no resonance in a larger framework for him; it’s not so different from forgetting.
Paulina has been talking about her loneliness and the loss of her husband. Leontes has a plan for her to marry someone else, and he pulls her away from reminiscence. This is an indication that in this final scene there are some key things that had better not be remembered too pointedly.
The appearance of Hermione before him hasn’t yet interfered entirely with the memory of her apparent death and years of mourning. Both forgiving (those who may have deceived him) and forgetting (that he might ask some sharp questions about the preceding years), contribute to the outcome. Likewise he relies on some forgetting and greater forgiveness in return. The audience has also heard about Hermione’s ghost appearing to a trustworthy character, so we may have something to forget too.
For a moment I think it might seem that Leontes is going to press on with his questions about the apparent death of his wife. But his diversion for Paulina is a diversion for himself: Camillo helps them think of something else.
He is addressing Hermione here. Leontes urges her to reunite with his old friend (and latterly enemy) Polixenes. It’s another angle across the scene, emphasising forgiveness, perhaps enabling forgetting.
The sounds emphatic, as if real effort will be put in to not forgetting the past – and this is worrying. But for the audience, of course, it will happen offstage, after the applause and the invasion of the everyday has taken our minds off some particulars.
I think the combination of ‘leisurely’ and ‘hastily’ creates a productive dissonance, a sort of interference signal that makes me more inclined to think that this speech is offering its listeners, on and offstage, a sort of motivated forgetting that could get them past the problems of the moment and the memories it has to offer.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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