Can scientists ‘hack’ memory?

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Modern science brings us endless possibilities to help our bodies and our minds stay healthy, but some recent scientific pursuits have also been the center of controversy. One of these is researchers’ interest in manipulating memories. Is this feat possible, and if so, why would we want to achieve it?
Share on PinterestIn this Spotlight feature, we explore whether scientists can achieve memory manipulation, and how they might do it.
Our memories make up so much of who we are, and the things we remember can often define our experience of the world.
And while positive memories can help us grow and thrive, negative memories do not always have such welcome effects.
Sometimes, unpleasant memories can be part of a learning curve — getting scalded with boiling water means that next time we will be more careful when handling the kettle.
However, there are also memories that are truly traumatic, and recalling them can lead to distress and serious mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The study of memory — formation, recall, and forgetting — attracts a lot of attention and curiosity among neuroscientists, psychologists, and even researchers from the humanities, as there is still so much we do not fully understand about the processes surrounding memory.
And, while we still need to find out more about how memories form in the brain, researchers in recent years have started investigating the possibility of manipulating memories — particularly negative ones — to see if they can weaken or remove them altogether.
In this Spotlight feature, we look briefly at why we remember and why we naturally forget. We also explore some studies that have delved into memory manipulation, explaining how researchers aim to achieve it, and why.
Memory recall and forgetting
When the brain encodes information, those data become stored in groups of neurons that synapses — or links that allow brain cells to “communicate” —connect together.
Scientists typically associate stronger synapses with a better memory, and the brain constantly “updates” synaptic connections, forming new ones or strengthening old ones, as new memories build or we update older ones.
However, synapses can also become weaker if they are not activated often enough, and the brain often loses some of these connections altogether. Thus, forgetting can occur naturally and, indeed, researchers argue that forgetting is a crucial part of learning and creating new memories.
Medical News Today spoke to Sam Berens, Ph.D., who is currently a research assistant at the University of York in the United Kingdom, and he explained to us that natural forgetting can be due to a few different reasons.
“Forgetting occurs because it would not be energy efficient to indefinitely maintain all the memories that we form each day,” he explained, adding that it “also seems to be a natural consequence of neurogenesis — the process that creates new brain cells in support of future learning.”
“Because of this, clearing old and unused memories may be directly related to our ability to learn new things,” he told MNT.
But scientists continue to explore the many complications that riddle memory recall and formation. For instance, not all our memories are correct, and sometimes our brains “implement” forgetting as a defense mechanism.
Memory conformity and distortion
Past research has shown that social interactions can influence a person’s memory of an event, as can what other people remember — or claim to remember — about the same event.
Share on PinterestWhat other people tell us can influence our memories.
According to a report in the journal ScienceTrusted Source, “conformity may present in two forms, which initially convey similar, explicit behavior but are fundamentally different.” These are:
• Private conformity, in which “an individual’s recollection may genuinely be altered by social influence, resulting in long-lasting, persistent memory errors.”
• Public conformity, in which “individuals may choose to outwardly comply, providing an account that fits that of others, but inwardly maintain certitude in their own original memory.”
However, while public conformity does not actually affect an individual’s own memory perception, engaging in this process could lead to that person influencing others’ memory of the event.
At the same time, the reports’ authors note, “memory conformity may also serve an adaptive purpose because social learning is often more efficient and accurate than individual learning,” which is not always reliable.
For instance, as studies have shown, the process of memory retrieval can mean that the original memory is rewritten — with the memory of that memory — so that the original memory becomes warped.
A study appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience calls this “retrieval-induced distortion,” and explains that the distortion could occur either because the retrieval process modified the memory, “or because it led to the formation of new […] associations” that “got stuck,” so to speak, to the original memory.
“A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event — it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it,” says Donna Bridge, one of the study authors.
“Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.”