Neuroscientists at New York University have been experimenting with new techniques to map and alter the fear response of certain memories. The hope is that it will be able to help soldiers and other people who have lived through traumatic events be able to move on from crippling and debilitating memories.
The Science of Memory is Changing
Not long ago, scientists thought of memory as something inflexible, akin to a videotape of an event that could be recalled by hitting rewind and then play. But in recent decades, new technology has helped change the way we understand how memory works — and what we can do with it. Scientists can now manipulate memory in ways they hope will eventually lead to treatments for disorders ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress to Alzheimer’s disease.
“We now understand there are points in time when we can change memory, where we can create windows of opportunity that allows us to alter memories, and even erase specific memories,” says Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at New York University.
While scientists long believed that memories were stored in the brain permanently, they now understand that memory is in fact malleable. Kroes says this knowledge — and the ability to specifically alter memory on a cellular level — could lead to new treatments for people with many conditions.
Application to Treating Traumatic Memories
The hope is that these new approaches can also be used to strengthen memories in patients with memory loss. In the meantime studies are underway in patients with PTSD and other disorders such as addiction. But Kroes warns at this point he and other scientists only have a very early grasp of how these new techniques actually work. And they still have much more work to do before these new discoveries can be translated into effective treatments for the millions of patients suffering from memory and anxiety disorders.
Still, he and other researchers see a major shift in the concept of memory.
“I think it forces us not to think of memory as a video tape where we press play at the moment where we experienced an event,” says Elizabeth Kensinger, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College. “But instead think of the process of recalling a past event as a very active process where our brains are constantly trying to fill in pieces.”
If you could erase all of your bad memories – would you? Which ones and why?