Unwanted Memory Intrusions Recruit Broad Motor Suppression

J Cogn Neurosci. 2021 Jan;33(1):119-128. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01642. Epub 2020 Oct 20.


Quickly preventing the retrieval of (inappropriate) long-term memories might recruit a similar control mechanism as rapid action-stopping. A very specific characteristic of rapid action-stopping is "global motor suppression": When a single response is rapidly stopped, there is a broad skeletomotor suppression. This is shown by the technique of TMS placed over a task-irrelevant part of the primary motor cortex (M1) to measure motor-evoked potentials. Here, we used this same TMS method to test if rapidly preventing long-term memory retrieval also shows this broad skeletomotor suppression effect. Twenty human participants underwent a Think/No-Think task. In the first phase, they learned word pairs. In the second phase, they received the left-hand word as a cue and had to either retrieve the associated right-hand word ("Think") or stop retrieval ("No-Think"). At the end of each trial, they reported whether they had experienced an intrusion of the associated memory. Behaviorally, on No-Think trials, they reported fewer intrusions than Think trials, and the reporting of intrusions decreased with practice. Physiologically, we observed that the motor-evoked potential, measured from the hand (which was irrelevant to the task), was reduced on No-Think trials in the time frame of 300-500 msec, especially on trials where they did report an intrusion. This unexpected result contradicted our preregistered prediction that we would find such a decrease on No-Think trials where the intrusion was not reported. These data suggest that one form of executive control over (inappropriate) long-term memory retrieval is a rapid and broad stop, akin to action-stopping, that is triggered by the intrusion itself.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Evoked Potentials, Motor
  • Executive Function*
  • Humans
  • Motor Cortex*