We had a fantastic question sent in last week from one of our readers, who asked:
How can I selectively erase memories? OR How can I attempt to selectively erase memories with the highest probability of success? It would be cool to see experiments done on people (though this is probably not ethical), showing how the erasure of certain memories can affect certain behavioral traits. For example erasing memories of a violent childhood to remove aggressive behavior as an adult. Would love to see this question answered in the next article if it’s not too much work!
I think we all have memories we’d like to forget. I know I have one. It was a warmer than usual September, and my first semester at the U of A. I was wearing a cute fall dress, and I had my classic U of A backpack on. You know, that one everyone gets in their first year and wears proudly until January when you realise you look like a tool? Anyway, I was running from Ed to ETLC for my Ecology class; I didn’t want to be late. The wind picked up as I power-walked through Quad, but I didn’t think anything of it; I just wanted a good seat in class. As I approached ETLC I heard some girls snickering behind me–a startling realization came over me. My ass was really cold. I reached around, and to my surprise, my dress was not at all covering my backside. It had ridden up and was stuck underneath the backpack, exposing my derrière to the entire campus. That backpack made me look like a tool AND a hoe.
When I read this question I instantly thought of a book I read this summer called Moonwalking with Einstein. After reading it I became a tad obsessed with remembering things. The book outlines a series of techniques for memorizing just about anything by using mental spaces. It is well known that by correlating ideas, objects, or grocery lists to places we can walk through spatially, we are able to remember things a lot better. It also helps if we associate funny, or even raunchy images to something boring to aid in memorization. Despite flexing my memory muscles all summer, I had never considered the question of how one forgets things. It seems logical to me that if we can force ourselves to remember things for a midterm, we should be able to force ourselves to forget.
Memory is a tricky topic in neuroscience. It isn’t fully understood how neural patterns make us recall information, but nonetheless the science behind forgetting is a rapidly evolving field due to recent breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s research.
The fact is our brains are both machines for remembering things, but also for forgetting unwanted or unnecessary information. In fact, I assume that the vast majority of information that enters our brains is deemed unimportant and forgotten before we have consciously processed it. Forgetting can be an annoyance (what was that cute guys phone number?), but it is also extremely essential to brain function. You might think of forgetting as an accident. Indeed it may be seem like an accident to your conscious self, but as I have already established in my previous brain article, your brain doesn’t care what your conscious self wants. Your brain is actively trying to forget information.
This is a relatively recent finding. Previously it was assumed that forgetting was a passive process, or kind of an accident. However, recently scientists have demonstrated that forgetting is an active process. The researchers found that a neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in both actively forgetting and actively remembering. As a new memory is formed there is also an active process that is mediated by dopamine activity that is trying to forget it. The memory will be forgotten unless some significance is attached to this memory. Perhaps the key to forgetting something is not deeming it important in the first place. This is a relatively unconscious process, your brain does it without you thinking about it.
Another study was recently published that addresses how people can actively and consciously forget particular events. Two pathways studied were repression of the memory, or by recalling substitute memories. Subjects memorized pairs of words, and were subsequently asked to forget them using one of the two techniques. The researchers found that two distinct neural pathways operated in each of these instances. Further research into this area seems very promising for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological disorders.
Between these two strategies, the latter seems the most effective to me in forgetting unwanted memories. This is something you could actively coach yourself to do. Furthermore, it’s something your brain is already doing. You’re always modifying memories unconsciously. For instance, think about the statement Antarctica is a frozen continent at the South pole of the planet Earth. You know this to be a fact, but when did you learn it? It’s perfectly normal if you don’t remember. As we process facts into long-term memory storage we tend to dissociate them from their source. Meaning we forget where, or how, or even how credible the source was. Therefore, it seems reasonable that by applying proper techniques for forgetting, you could ultimately repress or replace just about anything, just ask Freud!
As for the process of erasing memories, I’m not sure the technology will ever exist. Like I said above, we don’t exactly know how memories are stored in the brain, nor do I think we could ever pinpoint a specific cellular location for a particular memory to target some device to somehow remove it from the brain. Memories are a complex entity that involve a variety of sensory processes. A memory isn’t made of just sight and sound. It’s made of taste, texture, atmosphere, and that feeling that makes a good time a great one, or a bad time a devastating one. Memories are also a little bit fictitious, as we move memories from short-term to long-term storage the story might change, our feelings about the actors might change. All of these different aspects come from different locations in the brain, and so the idea that we could pinpoint a specific location where all of these factors are collected and stored seems unrealistic to me (it’s one of those “I’ll believe it when I read their Science paper” things.). Therefore the ability to distinctly erase a little patch and remove an entire swath of feelings seems unrealistic to me.
To conclude this truly amazing question I’ll pose a few questions, which I will openly admit were very much inspired by the movie Total Recall. If who you are today was built from the experiences of your past, and is actively influenced by your memories (however accurate they may be) would you really want to delete them? Without your memories would you know who you were? If you knew who you were but couldn’t remember how you became that person, would this be troubling for you?
Go ahead and answer these in the comments! Don’t be shy!