Science suggests it's possible to erase specific memories. But even if we can, should we?
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Could someone actually erase your memories?
First, let’s look at what a memory is, and how these things form. At the most basic level, memories form when proteins cause our brain cells to form new synaptic connections between neurons. The emphasis here is on connections, rather than a single spot. So a recollection isn’t stored in one specific cell of your brain. Instead, it’s tangled up in these various connections between these neurons.
And, despite how static they may feel, memories are not stable. Sure, you can revisit your first day at a job, or school, or the time you the love of your life. But every time you do, that memory becomes malleable again, resetting more vividly than before.
Each time you remember something, your brain has to “resave” some version of that memory. It’s like you’re taking a piece of hard chocolate out of a refrigerator and holding it in a warm room, or with your warm hands. When you put it back in the fridge, it’s changed, even if just a bit, from exposure.
This is known as ‘reconsolidation.’ And the more often you revisit a memory, the more it changes. Your brain reassesses its connections, literally rewiring itself.
So, let’s say, for example, that you have an unpleasant memory. Maybe you were bit by a spider during your childhood. And every time you remembered this spider bite, you also remembered the pain and fear of the experience, strengthening that connection in your mind. Eventually, just thinking of spiders in general could leave you terrified and quaking in fear.
But don’t feel doomed just yet. It’s possible to tilt the scales during every single act of recollection. Numerous studies indicate that using a drug called propranolol to block your body’s norepinephrine can ‘dampen’ traumatic memories, leaving the details while removing the overwhelming emotional associations.
One particularly fascinating study found that injecting mice with this substance could break their fearful associations between musical tones and subsequent shocks.
Norepinephrine, by the way is a chemical involved in the “flight or fight” response that people get.
This line of research isn’t quite capable of creating the sci-fi amnesia we see in films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but it could be an invaluable treatment for trauma survivors. This leads us to several wide-reaching implications – some of which are disturbing.
First, scientists do believe it’s possible, with the right combination of drugs and treatment, to target and erase specific memories. The primary obstacle, so far, seems to be ethical rather than procedural. Second, healthy people may try to take these treatments simply because they want to erase something.
And one last thing: there’s a reason our memories exists. As painful as some recollections may be, they can also function as tools of survival. To paraphrase the old saying: what’s the point of forgetting the past if it means you’re doomed to repeat it?
Thanks for watching! And hey, here's a question: if you could erase a memory with an injection, would you do it? How do you think this technology will be used in the future? Let me know in the comments and remember: stay tuned for more BrainStuff.