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Can You Trust Your Memory?

January 3, 2010

I just learned about some recent advances in scientific studies related to memory.  Apparently memory does not work how I always thought it did.  I had learned, from reading slightly dated neuroscience texts, that memories were “burned” into the brain, similar to how data is burned to a CD or DVD.  They were immutable, and absent brain damage, memories were memories. That was how scientists thought it worked until just a few years ago.

They’ve come to learn that every time a memory is accessed, it is modified.  In fact, each time a memory is accessed, it is subsequently destroyed, then rewritten, making it a sort of Phoenix.

This research, which is being done by Karim Nader of McGill University, is absolutely fascinating to me.  I had always wondered why Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” worked.  Freud’s discovery had always been a mystery to me.  Somehow, just by remembering a painful event, you could cure yourself of the emotional anxiety it was bringing to you unconsciously.

For example, say you’re a war veteran and you and your wife visit a pawn shop and you see guns on the wall.  All of the sudden you feel anxious and nervous.  No memories surface to your mind, but you just all of the sudden feel an uneasiness and discomfort.  You might start to sweat, your heart rate increases, and you may begin to feel nervous.  That’s your mind calling up the memory unconsciously, bringing up those old fears from your war days, but because it’s so painful the memory is repressed and is unable to surface.

What happens during the talking cure is that when you remember the painful events, your brain destroys the old memory and rewrites a new one in its place, and thus rewires things in your brain.  That’s why it cures you of the anxiety.  This is also why it helps you to talk to others about your problems instead of holding them in.   You’ll still remember that the events happened, but it just won’t bother you as much.  That emotional charge will be relieved, and they’ll become like any other memory.

But there’s even more to this than that!  Memories are rewritten each time they’re accessed, meaning that a memory is more accurate the less times it’s been accessed.  So if you find yourself telling a story over and over, it tends to change over time.  You end up forgetting what really happened, and your memories are replaced with your own “story” of the event.

So if you’re like me, and sometimes lie awake in bed and think about events that happened, and analyze them, the more times you replay the story, the more you’ve corrupted that memory.

The implications of this are immense.  Your memories of what happened to you in the past may not be accurate at all.  You may recall it.  You may swear by it.  You may even be able to bring the events directly to mind and picture it as you believe it happened.  Unfortunately, that event as you’re remembering it may have never happened – at least not exactly as you’re recalling it.

The imagination can add and remove things from the memory each time it’s accessed.

Quoting from Discover magazine:

“Brunet’s experiment emerges from one of the most exciting and controversial recent findings in neuroscience: that we alter our memories just by remembering them.  Karim Nader of McGill — the scientist who made this discovery — hopes it means that people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]  can cure themselves by editing their memories.  Altering remembered thoughts might also liberate people imprisoned by anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, even addiction.  “There is no such thing as a pharmacological cure in psychiatry,” Brunet says.  “But we may be on the verge of changing that.”
These recent insights into memory are part of a large about-face in neuroscience research.  until recently, long-term memories were thought to be physically etched into our brain, permanent and unchanging.  Now it is becoming clear that memories are surprisingly vulnerable and highly dynamic.  In the lab they can be flicked on or dimmed with a simple dose of drugs.  “For a hundred years, people thought that memory was wired into the brain,” Nader says.  “Instead, we find it can be rewired — you can add false information to it, make it stronger, make it weaker, and possibly even make it disappear.”  Nader and Brunet are not the only ones to make this observation.  Other scientists probing different parts of the brain’s memory machinery are similarly finding that memory is inherently flexible.”

After studying the chemical methods by which our brain stores and accesses memories, Nader performed a very simple experiment.  He took some rats and programmed them to fear a sound.  He’d play them a sound then shock them on the foot using an electrical device.  Over time the rats began to fear the noise.  Each time they’d hear it they’d freeze in fear.

Next he injected them with a protein-synthesis inhibitor which prevents new memories from forming by prohibiting the alteration of the synapses.  If memory worked how people thought it did, then this should have only affected new memories from forming, but should not affect the old ones.  However, the rats ended up forgetting their associations with the buzzer entirely.

Upon hearing the buzzer the rats brains recalled the event.  However, upon recalling the event they “opened up” the memory but were unable to rewrite it back to the brain due to the drug they’d been injected with.  They ended up forgetting about the shocks and the buzzer entirely.

In effect Nader had shown that reactivating a memory destabilizes it, putting it back into a flexible, vulnerable state.

Scientists now are struggling to find out just how malleable our memories really are.  They’ve found out that they can be modified, now they need to find out how much memories change over time.

The main goal of this research, at least in its present stage, is to help cure people struggling with PTSD.  They have a drug now called propranolol which blocks the action of adrenaline.

During psychoanalytical treatment, Freud always dealt with patients getting tense and anxious while recalling the painful memories.  It was hard on the patient and it was his job to sit over the patient and push and encouraging them to keep going until they finally recalled the event in its entirety, no matter how painful.  Using propranolol you can disable that discomfort yet still recall the memories.  Going through the talking cure with these new drugs is a lot easier.

It’s amazing how things get better everyday.  At the same time, I just watched Total Recall a few days ago.  It’s a bit scary to think that it doesn’t seem very long before that’ll be possible.  Maybe 100 years from now it’ll be possible.  But I think that’s a good thing.  School will become a thing of the past, and learning will become like what we saw in the Matrix movies.  You plug in and download whatever you’re interested in learning.  Your focus will be on discovering new truths and advancing humanity instead of relearning the same things others have already labored to discover.

That’s really the process evolution has been on.  One of the advantages we as humans developed was our vocal chords, allowing us to produce a wide variety of sounds and talk to one another.  Now we’ve come to a point where reading, writing, and talking are too slow.  There’s too much information out there and we can’t possibly keep up.  Inventions will be created which allow us to communicate with one another more quickly, transmitting large amounts of information quickly and easily.   I think we’ll communicate “telepathically”, but I’m guessing early inventions will work just like wireless computer equipment works today – probably over electromagnetic waves.  We’ll have a computer chip embedded in our brains which will decode the waves and will then store the information in our brains.

It may well come to a point where we’ll just be sitting in our chairs at home or at work and new information will flow into our brains.  Some sort of global broadcast which uploads the new information to us.  New science.  New discoveries.  New data.  We’ll always be up to date.

I think with time our brains will be swapped out by something faster and more efficient.  Probably a sort of quantum computer which can mimic the same operations, but do it way faster and store a lot more information.

I was lying in bed yesterday and thought about what I’d do if a super advanced alien came down to Earth and started talking to me.  I was thinking what it’d be like if I asked it, “Tell me about the universe.”  Communication through speech would be so slow it’d be unbearable to the being.  I bet aliens at that level don’t even communicate with humans because it’d take a thousand years just to tell us something complicated.  They’d have to be able to interface with our computers, because our brains are way too slow and weak to communicate with.

“Could you give us a star chart of the positions of all galaxies and individual stars, planets, comets, and other size-able bodies floating in space?”  They couldn’t do that.  They’d need to communicate with our computers.  And what about all their past positions, and how the galaxies developed over time?  Good God!  Our brains couldn’t even handle the present instant, much less billions of years worth of data.  And what if there’s multiple dimensions?  It becomes even more futile talking to us.  Not to mention that what we call matter only constitutes a tiny fraction of all the “stuff” that exists out there.  Most matter is “dark matter”.  Humans are too primitive.  I doubt they bother us.  We’re like lowly animals to them, like a small critter we see in a cage in the zoo.  They fly by and wave at us, and quickly observe, then fly off.  And knowing us, the Department of Defense probably shoots a laser beam at them, or fires a nuclear warhead at their vessel.  Fear of the unknown and anything that’s different — that’s humanity’s motto.

A few thousand years from now, I don’t think humans will be humans.  They’ll be something else entirely — if we don’t annihilate ourselves before that.

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