New study offers insight into how you can 'declutter' your mind

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  • The mechanisms behind clearing your mind of 'old ideas' to make room for new thoughts have not been clear, until recently.
  • Researchers looked at what happens in our brains when we try to clear our minds
  • They came up with clues on how to help people with conditions like OCD and PTSD

Removing unwanted thoughts from your mind is just as important for cognition as holding information in your memory.

Yet, it can be challenging to stop thinking about certain things, especially when trying to come up with new ideas.

Researchers recently teamed up to find which strategy is best for clearing out our minds in order to make room for new and more productive thoughts.

“We found that if you really want a new idea to come into your mind, you need to deliberately force yourself to stop thinking about the old one,” stated co-author of the study, Professor Marie Banich. 

Purging thoughts

The study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, used a combination of brain imaging and machine learning techniques in order to give us a glimpse of what happens in the brain when we try to stop thinking of something.

The researchers define working memory as “the ability to actively hold information in mind”.

They went on to say that working memory has a limited capacity, and for this reason, the ability to remove irrelevant information is essential. 

To better understand whether we can purposely flush irrelevant information to make space for new thoughts, the brain activity of 60 participants was observed as they tried to rid their working memory of thoughts. 

Replace, suppress and clear

The participants were asked to lie in an fMRI machine and were shown pictures (faces, fruit and scenes), which they were asked to look at for four seconds for it to be encoded into their working memory.

By examining fMRI data, the researchers could see exactly what each subject’s brain looked like (“neural signatures”) when they thought of a picture.

They were then asked to either replace, maintain, suppress or clear the thought. With each of these cognitive tasks being carried out, the researchers noticed that neural signatures associated with the pictures faded. 

“Replace”, “suppress” and “clear” also had different effects: "replace" and "clear" made the neural signatures fade faster but not completely, whereas "suppress" took longer to flush out an image, but did a more complete job of making space for a new thought.

“The bottom line is: If you want to get something out of your mind quickly use 'clear' or 'replace’.

But if you want to get something out of your mind so you can put in new information, 'suppress' works best,” Professor Banich explained.

A study like this is greatly beneficial as it can contribute to therapies designed for conditions like PTSD and OCD, but also for everyday tasks that require that us to refresh our minds, such as being productive at work and studying.

READ | Depression, anxiety, PTSD may plague many Covid-19 survivors

READ | PTSD: Your eyes can reveal whether you've had traumatic experiences

READ | Is it really OCD 

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