If you could take a pill that would erase any memory, would you take it? Traumatic memories can be painful, debilitating baggage, persisting for decades and often difficult to control. Previous therapies involved discussing traumatic memories in detail, but new models of the elastic and networked basis of memory have demonstrated that this isn’t effective. Jonah Lehrer writes in Wired:
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have imagined memories to be a stable form of information that persists reliably. The metaphors for this persistence have changed over time—Plato compared our recollections to impressions in a wax tablet, and the idea of a biological hard drive is popular today—but the basic model has not. Once a memory is formed, we assume that it will stay the same. This, in fact, is why we trust our recollections. They feel like indelible portraits of the past.
None of this is true. In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.
However, a “memory” is not a “thing”, in the usual sense of the word. It is an experience, in our brain, that we replay.
We have new understanding that the formation of memories is utterly dependent on biological processes, on proteins that help write new connections in our neural network. When we “re-fire” this network, we “recall” a memory. What if we could block the proteins that write the connections? Could we truly forget?
New research is getting close to just that. In rats, drugs can block the function of a key protein (PKMzeta) involved in strengthening memory synapses. The effect is preventing experiences from being reinforced. In a sense, one can forget that small neural web, and the memory that it encodes.
When we begin to view memory as relative, as dependent on a constant flux of neural networks, it calls into question what is “true”. And the ethics of taking a “forgetting” pill are just as murky. It turns out that our assumption that we can’t choose what to remember or forget is wrong, and soon we might have the power to make that choice. Would you?
For more, check out Jonah Lehrer’s full article, and this series on PKMzeta from Ed Yong.
(via Wired Magazine, image by Dwight Eschliman)