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Published: May 30, 2023

Associate Professor of Psychology Researches Forgetting

Sara Festini, associate professor of psychology at the University of Tampa, has spent over a decade studying cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience.  

	Associate Professor of Psychology Researches Forgetting Sara Festini, associate professor of psychology at the University of Tampa, has spent over a decade studying cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Photo courtesy of Sara Festini

One of her latest projects, recently presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, looks into the science of forgetting.  

In March, she presented her findings along with her colleagues at the 30th Annual Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference in San Francisco. 

Hear from Festini about her initial question, her findings and presenting at the conference. 

What was the initial question you were looking into?

My overarching research goal was to investigate how people strategically prioritize relevant information and remove irrelevant information from the mind.

Why was this important to you?

In our everyday life, we are bombarded with a lot of irrelevant information, such as the names of highway exits we don’t need to take, billboard advertisements or spam emails. I wanted to further understand how people can strategically prioritize important information and disregard unnecessary information from their “working memory,” which is what you’re currently thinking about or “working with” in your mind.

Who else did you work with on the research? How long were you working on this particular research question?

I’ve been conducting experiments related to this overarching research question for over 10 years. Earlier experiments were conducted at the University of Michigan with Patti Reuter-Lorenz and Tiffany Jantz. I’m also currently conducting research in my laboratory at UT on these research questions. I’ve had 16 undergraduate students at UT assist with these research projects so far. Special thanks to Elena Sakosky, Emilee Mendoza, Thresia Casanova, Kyra Brettler, Brendon Bloomfield, Katy Becker, Lauren Parente, Danielle Jahn, Weston Zloty, Cary Trierweiler, Alley Rodriguez, Grace Kegler, Dhani Deveaux, Kendall Deshler, Gian DePamphilis and Raquel Aguilar for their assistance with data collection!

Tell me about presenting in San Francisco. 

The Cognitive Neuroscience Society conference in San Francisco was excellent! I was thrilled to be able to share my research on the voluntary control of working memory alongside distinguished luminaries in the field, including Marie Banich of University of Colorado Boulder, Lili Sahakyan of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Michael Anderson of Cambridge University. It was an honor to be a part of a symposium focused on the neural underpinnings and behavioral consequences of voluntary forgetting.

What was better with this research (if anything) than previous research projects that you've worked on? 

It was exciting to be able to share my research findings in a symposium devoted to memory control. Banich and I focused on the removal of information from working memory, and Sahakyan and Anderson focused on the removal of information from long-term memory.

What about the findings surprised you?

One of the experiments I conducted at UT aimed to compare directed forgetting, where we provide an instruction to “forget” certain words, to a control condition in which participants knew that their memory was not going to be tested on those words, but they were not specifically given a “forget” cue. I found it fascinating that participants exhibited similar levels of interference in their memory for the words they only studied—but didn’t need to remember or forget—as words they were supposed to remember. In contrast, participants showed significantly less interference in memory for words that they were instructed to forget. This indicates that intentional forgetting of information from the mind is beneficial, but it requires effort and intention. It doesn’t happen automatically.

Anything else you want to add? 

My research provides evidence that intentional forgetting of irrelevant information within working memory is beneficial, as it makes that information less susceptible to memory interference and false memories, but this process is effortful and does not happen spontaneously.

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