Memory by choice

Strategic Perspective
René B. Azurin

Posted on March 01, 2012

Yesterday, my attention was drawn to an article in the March 2012 issue of Wired magazine that bore the intriguing title, "The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever." By contributing editor Jonah Lehrer, the long piece described in fascinating detail the latest developments in ongoing scientific research in the field of memory. The essence of those developments is captured by a sentence: "In the very near future, the act of remembering will become a choice."

As it turns out, memories are not, as previously thought, "a stable form of information that persists reliably." Not at all like the data stored on a computer hard drive that can be recalled in the same exact form over and over. For a very long time now, people have assumed that a memory, once formed, will always stay the same and that we can "trust our recollections" as "indelible portraits of the past." Confronting the research, Lehrer writes, "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."

Wow. This is an earthshaking finding that cuts the ground out from all our cherished beliefs about the accuracy of our memories. What researchers -- notably, New York University neuroscientist Karim Nader, McGill University clinical psychologist Alain Brunet, and Columbia University neurologist Todd Sacktor -- have essentially found out is that (in Lehrer’s words), "Every memory begins as a changed set of connections among cells in the brain… If you happen to remember this moment… it’s because a network of neurons has been altered, woven more tightly together within a vast electrical fabric." More significantly, researchers have discovered that those electrical connections are not permanent and need to be recreated every time an event is sought to be recalled. That remembering process requires the presence of certain proteins that release chemical neurotransmitters in the brain and enhance the receptivity of certain neurons to electrical excitement by adding extra receptors along their length.

Current research -- largely motivated by the desire to cure post-traumatic stress disorders presumably caused by the persistence of the memory of some traumatic event in the past -- have focused on the blocking of the synthesis of the proteins required to trigger the activity of those neurotransmitters. The basic hypothesis is that the inability of the required neurons to reestablish, when called upon, the electrical connections associated with a certain memory effectively erases that memory. Researchers have targeted various proteins and experimented with various protein inhibitors. What they have found (as described by Lehrer) is that, "Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Even more startling, an equally small family of compounds could turn out to be a universal eraser of history, a pill that we could take whenever we wanted to forget anything."

Since memories have to be recreated every time they are recalled, this clearly implies that our recollections are never perfectly accurate. Obviously, depending on what set of neurons in our brains manage to link up electrically while we are trying to extract the memory of some past event, certain details will be enhanced and others will be suppressed. As Lehrer notes, he may recall his eighth birthday party but remember only the Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake and not the face of the friend he shared it with. Likewise, we may remember vividly the warm feeling of a child’s hug but not quite when it happened. Or recall the scent of a former lover but not at all the dress she wore. In Lehrer’s words, "The memory is less like a movie, a permanent emulsion of chemicals on celluloid, and more like a play -- subtly different each time it’s performed. In my brain, a network of cells is constantly being reconsolidated, rewritten, remade."

In an interesting study cited by Lehrer, psychologists William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps "surveyed several hundred subjects about their memories" of the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy. They then repeated the surveys with the same subjects every year for the next 10 years, noting changes in the individual stories. As related by Lehrer, "At one year out, 37% of the details had changed. By 2004 that number was approaching 50%. Some changes were innocuous -- the stories got tighter and the narratives more coherent -- but other adjustments involved a wholesale retrofit. Some people even altered where they were when the towers fell. Over and over, the act of repeating the narrative seemed to corrupt its content." Many of the details, according to Phelps, may now be "make-believe." Quoting Phelps, "What’s most troubling, of course, is that these people have no idea their memories have changed this much… The strength of the emotion makes them convinced it’s all true, even when it’s clearly not."

That memory is, thus, not "stable" or "trustworthy," Lehrer correctly points out, has serious ramifications on our justice system. As he puts it, "It’s why eyewitness testimony shouldn’t be trusted, why every memoir should be classified as fiction, and why it’s so disturbingly easy to implant false recollections." Lehrer cites the repeated demonstrations of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus "that nearly a third of subjects can be tricked into claiming a made-up memory as their own. It takes only a single exposure to a new fiction for it to be reconsolidated as fact."

How are we now to cope with such knowledge that effectively calls into question all of our treasured memories? Or deal with the new knowledge that these can now be altered seemingly at will and by drugs? If we can choose what we remember of our past, can we assume that it may eventually no longer matter what actually happens to us in the future?