They say their findings might lead to a way to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety to gain control of debilitating memories.
"You're shutting down parts of the brain that are responsible for supporting memories," says Brendan Depue, a neuroscience doctoral student at theUniversity of Colorado who worked on the study.
The concept of memory suppression has been a controversial one among psychologists for a century.
But in this study neuroscientists used brain scans to show that volunteers who have been asked to banish disturbing memories show very specific patterns of brain activity.
"In the first place, the stimuli may be unpleasant, but they are hardly traumatic," says the University of California Berkeley's Professor John Kihlstrom, who was not involved in the study.
"My prediction is it won't be as easy to suppress something that's long-standing and personally emotional," Depue says.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder are often troubled for decades by recurring images of a harrowing experience.
Still, patients might practice blocking such memories out of their minds, or at least reducing their emotional sting.
"It might be the case that people with memory disturbances have to gain some control over the memory representation by remembering it [and] trying a different emotional response to the memory before successful suppression," Depue says.
(QS. Al-Insyirah 1-8)