Wouldn’t you like to forget a particularly traumatic memory? A bad break-up, loss of a loved one or pet? Those events that bring back strong negative emotions and anxiety. Scientist are about already showing that they can dampen your response to those memories, proving that memories are not so permanent.
Researchers have already demonstrated the ability to change, delete and even implant memories. Pharmaceutical drugs that will help you forget “bad” memories are already in the process as highlighted by the PBS documentary Memory Hackers.
Sound a little like science fiction? Well the concept has been featured in several movies including Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind, Total Recall and even in the Hunger Games. Because of advanced neurological scanning technology, technology is catching up to science fiction.
How Memories Work
Scientist used to think that the brain was like a filing cabinet, with every memory having one specific place. But it turns out, that memories are locked across connections in the brain. We form new memories by proteins literally making new connections in our brains. Each memory has its own circuit built.
Once the circuit is built, it says as long as we recall it from time to time to reinforce the circuit. But those circuits are not stable and can be changed, added to or taken away from. Essentially every time we recall a memory it becomes malleable and can be changed.
It is known as reconsolidation and it is why our memories can change slightly over time. The fish gets bigger, the -ex gets more attractive (or less attractive) and negative events become more traumatic.
This is where scientist can step in. During reconsolidation the memory becomes changeable and this where scientist are focusing.
“The research suggests memories can be manipulated because they act as if made from glass, existing in a molten state as they are being created, before turning solid,” Richard Gray explains for The Telegraph. “When the memory is recalled, however, it becomes molten again and so can be altered before it once more resets.”
By manipulating norepinephrine which is involved in our fight or flight response, researches have been able to “dampen” traumatic memories and stop their association with negative emotions.
Just a few months ago, scientists from the Netherlands showed they could way arachnophobia, by using a drug called propranolol to block norepinephrine.
The same drug was used in 2007 with trauma victims. It showed that the patients did not forget the event but they were able to remove the negative emotions associated with the traumatic event.
To date, researchers have avoided trying to completely delete a memory because of the ethical implications. But it does look entirely possible with the right drugs and recall processes.
Maybe the most concerning aspect of this entire concept is the ability to implant false memories into people. By using the same reconsolidation process, Julia Shaw has shown it is possible to create a memory in someone for a crime that they never committed, with vivid detail.
You can see her work in action below, and it’s pretty terrifying:
Where do We Go From Here?
With memory manipulation possible, what can and should we do with this knowledge and ability?
Michael Bicks, the creator of Memory Hackers says “Ultimately the purpose isn’t to delete people’s painful memories entirely, like they attempt to do in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind, but simply tweak them so they’re less upsetting. Because it’s not so much the memories, but the associations they have in our minds, that cause us pain.”
For medical purposes, this could be the path for treating, PTSD, anxiety and phobias.
“Rewriting memories allows you to update them,” said Bicks. “But the purpose of forgetting is not just so you can clean off the hard drive … The ability to forget the unpleasant things allows us to create a story about ourselves that we can live with.”