Editing Memory

One of the weirdest things about memory is that every time a person remembers something, that memory is found, reconstituted for recall, and then recalled. A memory may seem like a pristine recollection but is not the original memory, it is a re-collection, a putting back together, of data. Changes to a memory happen. A memory becomes a memory of a memory that may already be a memory of a memory in potentially limitless iteration.

Studies show that what is called memory consolidation stabilizes memory. Each time a memory is accessed it is malleable. If we have only seen a river bed during a drought, when we see it filled with gushing torrents of water and debris after a rain storm, the memory of the river is changed. We do not have hundreds, if not thousands, of memories of the river. We have a memory with side notes.

This structure of memory allows us to explicitly change memories. And it is this plasticity that taps the “precise rules governing memory reconsolidation of aversive memories that might be used to treat traumatic memories.”

Memories rooted in trauma and fear can not be excised as in movies such as The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where mere relationship unpleasantries motivate a couples’s decision to have their memories of each other removed.

We know memories can be repressed. We know repression of such memories can result in PTSD, anxiety, and seemingly inexplicable fear reactions.

False memories were a big topic a few decades ago when child abuse allegations were trumped up and even created by unscrupulous caregivers and therapists. Memory studies in common understanding took a bad rap from this. But it turns out the path through the brain involved in recall may be more important in changing memory response and future behavior than, perhaps, the actual memory. The path may be the memory.

Folk wisdom says that ignoring something will not make it go away. Turns out neuroscience research supports this.

No one has been able to remove or zero out memories. For decades there has been some success with exposure therapy to lessen stress responses to phobias, test anxiety, and similar stress reactions. When it comes to therapy for trauma and PTSD, there has also been occasional success but not with reliable results. As we better understand the roll that path activation through electrochemical paths through hippocampus and and amygdala regions of the brain more specific treatments, both by behavioral therapy and even by adjusting neurochemical balances and through the administration of anesthesia during recall experiences, will be developed.

Headway is being made, but as yet there is no Eternal Sunshine or Spotless Mind.

References consulted:

Reactivation of recall-induced neurons contributes to remote fear memory attenuation in Science 360(6394):1239-1242 · June 2018 with 366 ReadsDOI: 10.1126/science.aas9875

Bailey, Matthew R. and Peter D. Balsam (2018) Memory Reconsolidation: Time to Change Your Science 360(6394):1239-1242 · June 2018 with 364 ReadsDOI: 10.1126/science.aas9875

Díaz-Mataix, L., Ruiz Martinez, R., Schafe, G., LeDoux, J., & Doyère, V. (2013). Detection of a Temporal Error Triggers Reconsolidation of Amygdala-Dependent Memories. Current Biology23(6), 467-472. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.01.053

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. “The neurons that rewrite traumatic memories.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 June 2018.