People who suffer traumatic experience maintain silence - they don't talk about it and many forget it over time, say researchers. But not talking about something doesn't always mean they'll forget it. If one tries to force oneself not to think about something, soon they'll be imagining about it.
"There's this idea, with silence, that if we don't talk about something, it starts fading," Charles B. Stone, an author of the paper from the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, said.
However, that belief isn't necessarily backed up by empirical psychological research-a lot of it comes from a Freudian belief that everyone has deep-seated issues they're repressing and ought to talk about.
Stone said that the real relationship between silence and memory is much more complicated.
"We are trying to understand how people remember the past in a very basic way. Silence is everywhere," Stone said.
He and his co-authors divide silence about memories into several categories. One might not mention something they'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.
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.
"Silence has important implications for how we remember the past beyond just forgetting. In terms of memory, not all silence is equal," Stone added.
The study has been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.