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Working memory is a limited capacity storage mechanism that allows the brain to store information in the short-term. It facilitates learning and execution of everyday tasks. Findings from a new study suggest that the removal of information from working memory requires active suppression.

Most people can only hold three or four thoughts in working memory; eventually old information (thoughts) needs to be removed to make room for new ones. The inability to remove old thoughts from working memory is a characteristic of many mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Previous work by the authors of the current study identified three distinct strategies for thought removal: replacement of the thought with another, suppression of the thought, and clearing the mind of all thoughts.

The authors of the current study combined machine learning and neuroimaging to observe how the brain responded to removal of old information from working memory in 60 healthy volunteers. The participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while storing information in their working memory and again while performing strategies to remove that information.

The imaging studies revealed that replacing and clearing thoughts work by shifting the brain’s focus. This action deactivates the thoughts' neural representation in the brain but leaves the information intact. Suppressing thoughts, however, deletes them, freeing up working memory capacity to take in other information.

These findings suggest that thought suppression is beneficial for freeing up space in working memory, which has relevance not only for mental health, but also for learning and productivity.

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