The idea of erased memories is a key plot line in many TV shows and movies — no matter the decade, the concept doesn’t seem to get old and continues to be a fixture of fictional work. Yet memory research finds that once a memory is formed, it is extremely difficult to eliminate. In psychology, this concept is called extinction, and it is defined as the gradual weakening of a conditioned response resulting in a behavior stopping, or going extinct, over time. Extinction psychology is related to classical and operant conditioning theories, and in certain circumstances, it can be applied to your mental health.
Causes of Extinction
When a person aims to eliminate a learned behavior, there is a key difference between their memory storage and memory expression — meaning the difference between what a person knows, and what a person tells another person they know. In extinction psychology, a connection between two events can be explained via classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
- Classical conditioning. This Pavolvian theory is famously centered on a study of how dogs learned to associate the sound of a ringing bell with food. When the dogs heard the bell, they salivated in anticipation of impending food. The key concepts of classical conditioning include the intentional pairing of a conditioned stimulus (food) and an involuntary response (salivation), as well as pairing stimuli to voluntary behavior without any conditioning. For instance, if you have a scary experience driving a car across a specific bridge, you may have the same, involuntary response each time you drive across it, such as a quickened heart rate, without realizing it.
- Operant conditioning. This theory was made famous by B.F. Skinner’s “Skinner Box” experiments, which entailed putting a small rodent in a cage with a bar on one wall that could be pushed to receive a food pellet. When the rodent found out pushing the bar resulted in a reward, it would go back and continue to push it again and again. The subject learned the voluntary behavior of pushing that bar produced a tasty reward. In operant conditioning, a learned, voluntary behavior (pushing the bar) is paired with a conditioned response (food pellet).
Classical and Operant Conditioning in Extinction Psychology
Learning processes that occur naturally or intentionally through classical conditioning and operant conditioning play an important role in extinction psychology. In the case of classical conditioning, for instance, a person can learn to have a fear reaction when something distressing occurs. In the example of driving over a bridge — the conditioned stimulus — extinction happens if a person goes to the place many times and nothing bad happens. The involuntary reaction of a quickened heart rate while driving over the bridge will eventually become extinct, and eventually, you can drive across the bridge without having a negative physical reaction to it.
For operant conditioning and extinction, much like the small rodent getting a pellet of food each time they press a bar, a behavior eventually becomes extinct if the reward no longer follows. If a person wants the rodent’s learned behavior response to be extinct, they need to take away the food reward. Eventually, the rodent will stop pressing the bar when they realize there is no delicious reward.
Extinction is Not Permanent
Each time a conditioned response stops, such as the rodent and pushing the bar, does that mean the behavior is permanently gone? Well, not exactly. Pavolv’s research found that in cases of extinction, the research subject does not necessarily return to their unconditioned state. Even waiting several hours or days after a response is eliminated can result in the spontaneous recovery of the response. As the name suggests, spontaneous recovery entails the reappearance of a response that was believed to be extinct.
In addition to spontaneous recovery, the reinforcement schedule of certain behaviors also impacts how permanent extinction is. This means how and when a behavior is reinforced can influence how susceptible it is to extinction, such as reinforcing a behavior only part of the time. Reinforcement in this instance is only provided after a certain amount of time has elapsed, helping behaviors grow stronger and more resistant to extinction over time.
It is important to note that there are different ways pharmacological manipulation can also enhance extinction and can occur because some aspect of the extinction memory is strengthened. This type of manipulation to enhance extinction is thought to improve a person’s response rate and can cause the behavior to be eliminated for a longer period of time, making it less likely to have a spontaneous recovery.
How Memories are Formed and Forgotten
Understanding how memories are formed and maintained is an important foundation to understanding how they could possibly be erased. In our brains, the hippocampus plays an essential role in processing negative or stressful information and forming memories. This means when a person experiences something stressful, the event is captured and stored in a population of neurons called an engram. Over time, these engrams become a part of a larger connected network, and memory retrieval relies on the reactivation of the engram cells through the synaptic connection.
While some might believe the act of forgetting is something that happens gradually over time — much like an athlete might fall out of shape during the offseason because they are not training and using their skills — it’s a bit more complex than that. Forgetting something does not happen because of synaptic disuse, rather, research shows it is because microglia are taking active measures to weed out unnecessary synaptic connections. Microglia are cells in the central nervous system that are responsible for the integrity of engrams.
How to Use Extinction in Your Life
Perhaps you are trying to quit smoking, but associate a big meal with an after-dinner cigarette, or maybe you are trying to overcome your fear of driving, but associate the experience of driving with short breaths, sweating, and an increased heart rate. No matter the scenario, if there is an association you hope to extinguish, psychology can help modify, or eliminate, your undesired response. While the methods may seem hard to understand or implement on your own, personalized guidance can help you reach your goal.
The best way to change your behaviors, bad habits, and unwanted physical reactions is by reaching out to a licensed mental health professional. Working with a therapist can help you get guidance on how to eliminate the challenging associations. Getting help can help improve your quality of life and have a positive impact on your mental and physical health. While extinction may not be permanent, there are ways to change or eliminate your unwanted behaviors over time.