Successfully controlling intrusive memories is harder when control must be sustained

Kevin van Schie*, Michael C. Anderson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


After unpleasant events, people often experience intrusive memories that undermine their peace of mind. In response, they often suppress these unwanted memories from awareness. Such efforts may fail, however, when inhibitory control demands are high due to the need to sustain control, or when fatigue compromises inhibitory capacity. Here we examined how sustained inhibitory demand affected intrusive memories in the Think/No-Think paradigm. To isolate intrusions, participants reported, trial-by-trial, whether their preceding attempt to suppress retrieval had triggered retrieval of the memory they intended to suppress. Such counter-intentional retrievals provide a laboratory model of the sort of involuntary retrieval that may underlie intrusive memories. Using this method, we found that longer duration trials increased the probability of an intrusion. Moreover, on later No-Think trials, control over intrusions suddenly declined, with longer trial durations triggering more relapses of items that had been previously been purged. Thus, the challenges of controlling retrieval appear to cause a decline in control over time, due to a change in state, such as fatigue. These findings raise the possibility that characteristics often true of people with psychiatric disorders–such as compromised sleep, and increased demand on control–may contribute to difficulties in suppressing intrusive memories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1201-1216
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Inhibitory control
  • intrusive memories
  • involuntary retrieval
  • memory inhibition
  • retrieval suppression


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