We Are Not Our Memories Anymore


Memories are what make us. We are, in a biological sense, just mobile containers for the (occasionally spotty) recall of everything we’ve ever learned or ever done.

And this is a good thing because, seriously, how much would it suck to wake up every morning and have to re-learn everything we know? We exist to learn, to gather knowledge, and to pass that knowledge along. Sure, we do other stuff, too. We build rocketships and tweet about sandwiches and reproduce and get lost trying to drive to the mall, but that memory thing? That’s important.

What’s more, that memory thing is permanent, right? I mean, setting aside the things we forget, the things we misunderstand, the memories we warp either deliberately or just in the course of being alive and imperfect containers of data, once something goes into the brain, it’s in there for keeps.

Except that maybe that’s not the case anymore. What if we really could Eternal-Sunshine-Of-The-Spotless-Mind ourselves and wipe out memories that we just don’t want to hang onto?

According to a study out now in Nature Neuroscience (what, you don’t read it every day?) is all about the possibility of shocking traumatic memories right out of our heads by using electro-convulsive therapy–basically burning out the bad stuff while keeping the good.

Over at National Geographic, Virginia Hughes breaks down the new study:

Marijn Kroes and his colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, tested the memories of 39 people with severe depression who were already undergoing ECT…Kroes wanted to find out whether ECT could erase memories during active recall.

The answer, apparently, is yes. The study showed that, in a test group, ECT could effectively wipe clean the memory of having seen a disturbing video shown to participants. It takes some doing (it seems that the process only works while a memory is being triggered) and those involved in the research were quick to say that this is early work, that experimental data does not always translate well or quickly into real-world application, and that, in any event, ECT should only be used in a clinical setting and that people shouldn’t go out there and start licking their car batteries in hopes of wiping out memories of an ex girlfriend.

But still, go science! Tinkering with our thinky bits is a dangerous business, but I love reading about those who try it anyway. And the ability to mess with memory formation and recall? That’s just like an early Christmas gift to fiction writers everywhere.

You can check out the original study and Virginia Hughes’s explanation of it below.

An electroconvulsive therapy procedure impairs reconsolidation of episodic memories in humans [Nature Neuroscinece]
Shocking Memories Away [National Geographic]


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