Emerging research questions the belief that if we do not talk about something, then we will forget the episode.
The issue is timely as experts look for new methods to help people recover after a traumatic experience.
“There’s this idea, with silence, that if we don’t talk about something, it starts fading,” says Charles B. Stone, an author of a new paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
Although this perspective has been widely accepted, researchers question this view saying that the belief is not supported by empirical psychological research — a lot of it comes from a Freudian belief that everyone has deep-seated issues that are repressed and need to be talked about.
The real relationship between silence and memory is much more complicated, Stone said.
“We are trying to understand how people remember the past in a very basic way,” he said. “Silence is everywhere.”
Stone and his coauthors divide silence about memories into several categories.
You might not mention something you’re thinking about on purpose — or because it just doesn’t come up in conversation. And some memories aren’t talked about because they simply don’t come to mind. Sometimes people actively try not to remember something.
One well-studied example used by Stone and his colleagues to demonstrate how subtle the effects of silence can be, establishes that silences about the past occurring within a conversation do not uniformly promote forgetting.
Some silences are more likely to lead to forgetting than others. People have more trouble remembering silenced memories related to what they or others talk about than silenced memories unrelated to the topic at hand.
If President Bush wanted the public to forget that weapons of mass destruction figured in the build-up to the Iraq War, he should not avoid talking about the war and its build-up. Rather he should talk about the build-up and avoid any discussion of WMDs.
And at a more personal level, when people talk to each other about the events of their lives, talking about happy memories may leave the unhappy memories unmentioned, but in the future, people may have more trouble remembering the unmentioned happy memories than the unmentioned sad memories.
Or to supply another example of the subtle relation between memory and silence: If your mother is asking you about your boyfriend and you tell her about yesterday’s date, while thinking—but not talking—about the exciting ending of the date, that romantic finish may linger longer in your memory than if you just answered her questions without thinking about the later part of the evening.
In summary, the relationship between silence and memory is complex.
“Silence has important implications for how we remember the past beyond just forgetting,” Stone said. “In terms of memory, not all silence is equal.”