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It’s possible to prevent yourself from thinking of bad memories, new research suggests

The new research challenged participants to change the first word that they associated with an image shown to the them on a screen.

Whether it’s a song that sparks the memory of a wrenching breakup or a photo that brings you back the day a beloved pet died, you've probably experienced unwanted thoughts at some point in your life. New research suggests there might be a way to avoid being regularly ambushed by such thoughts and the emotions they trigger, according to a report published in PLOS Computational Biology.

“We all know the experience of trying to stop thinking about certain unwanted or distracting thoughts,” the study’s lead author, Isaac Fradkin, who was a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when the study was being conducted, told TODAY via email.

“A particular song, object or word can remind us of a painful memory we would prefer not to think of,” Fradkin, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Aging in London, said.

The question asked by Fradkin and his colleagues was: “Instead of trying to get rid of such painful thoughts after they have already come to mind, can we ensure these reminders will not automatically evoke the painful thoughts?”

In general, every time a stimulus — a song, object or word, for example — triggers a painful memory and the person dwells on it, the link becomes stronger, Fradkin said.

In experiments with associated words, Fradkin and his colleagues found that while people were not able to completely sever the links, they could make them less automatic. The research with linked words suggests the “self-reinforcing effect is reduced when people are motivated to avoid such memories or thoughts,” he said. However, “we still need to test how our findings generalize to negative or personally relevant memories.”

In their experiment, the researchers simplified the question by looking only at word associations. They asked 80 volunteers to come up with single word associations to cues, such as “table,” shown on a computer screen and to type the word that first came to mind.

Each cue was shown several times, and 40 of the volunteers were told that if they could avoid repeating the same associated word, they would get a bonus. The other 40 were told to just continue typing the first word that came to mind.

“In this context, repeated associations — that is, thinking ‘chair’ when seeing the cue ‘table’ for the second time and so on — are unwanted thoughts,” Fradkin explained. “They distract the participant from the goal — to come up with a new association.”

Usually, after a person writes “chair” the first time it becomes even stronger and even more likely to come to mind in the future, Fradkin said. But some of the participants were able to reduce the self-reinforcing effects, which translated into a slower response time after seeing cue words.

The new study suggests that there may be ways to stop memories from intruding, said Aaron Brinen, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “They are starting to propose a mechanism that can built upon to create an intervention.”

It’s possible that being proactive can help you stop an association from becoming automatic, Brinen said. So when you hear an emotion-fraught song, start thinking about other associations you have with it.

Brinen remembers how tough it was when he lost his beloved dog, Sadie. “Early on I thought about Sadie all the time,” he said. “When I went for a walk, I would think about Sadie. When I went to bed, I would think about Sadie. When I went down in the morning, I would think about Sadie.”

What improved things was to look through old photos of Sadie with the family, Brinen said. “It reminded me of what a great partner she had been,” he added. “Now when I think of her, I have pictures in my mind of my son with his face buried in her fur when he was a little guy.”

The new research is quite novel, said Dr. Alexandre Dombrovski, Pittsburgh Foundation Endowed Professor in Brain and Mind Research and an associate professor psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

That’s because it’s very hard to study “free thought,” Dombrovski said. “Through very clever experimentation they have developed a machinery to allow them and others to study free thoughts.”

“If you think of your mind as a forest with all kinds of places in it — beautiful rocks, scary bogs, ugly plants and beautiful trees — there are paths between them,” Dombrovski said. “Some pathways are wide and easy to travel, like the association between table and chair, and some are more like deer paths that you can barely walk though. If you keep going down a path, it becomes wider and easy to travel.”

Take the example of getting ready to go to work, Dombrovski said. Some people will start thinking about all their unanswered email.

“They can get into a loop of worry,” Dombrovski said. “But they could start thinking about an exciting new project. The unanswered email will still be there, but now, the exciting new project has a stronger association.”