Skip to main content

Differential recruitment of inhibitory control processes by directed forgetting and thought substitution


Humans have the ability to intentionally forget information via different strategies, included suppression of encoding (directed forgetting) and mental replacement of the item to encode (thought substitution). These strategies may rely on different neural mechanisms; namely, encoding suppression may induce prefrontally mediated inhibition, whereas thought substitution is potentially accomplished through modulating contextual representations. Yet, few studies have directly related inhibitory processing to encoding suppression, or tested its involvement in thought substitution. Here, we directly tested whether encoding suppression recruits inhibitory mechanisms with a cross-task design, relating the behavioral and neural data from male and female participants in a Stop Signal task (a task specifically testing inhibitory processing) to a directed forgetting task with both encoding suppression (Forget) and thought substitution (Imagine) cues. Behaviorally, Stop Signal task performance (stop signal reaction times) was related to the magnitude of encoding suppression, but not thought substitution. Two complementary neural analyses corroborated the behavioral result. Namely, brain-behavior analysis demonstrated that the magnitude of right-frontal beta activity following stop signals was related to stop signal reaction times and successful encoding suppression, but not thought substitution; and classifiers trained to discriminate successful and unsuccessful stopping in the Stop Signal task could also classify successful and unsuccessful forgetting following Forget cues, but not Imagine cues. Importantly, inhibitory neural mechanisms were engaged following Forget cues at a later time than motor stopping. These findings not only support an inhibitory account of directed forgetting, and that thought substitution engages separate mechanisms, but also potentially identify a specific time in which inhibition occurs when suppressing encoding.