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Erasing Memories

TALK ABOUT  Total Recall and Eternal Sunshine

How do we make and store memories? Our brains are sometimes likened to computers because they take in so much information and handle so many processes, but in reality our brains are an order of magnitude more complicated than that. They store memories not as distinct wholes, but as complex constructions made of our experiences. EX: If i tell you to think about a shoe, you could prbably picture one. Its more than just the shape that your brain can store and conjure up at will. Every component of a shoe from soles to laces, to the sound the shoe makes walking on gravel is stored in a different part of the brain. Parts of the brain that deal with langiuage, vision, even emotion, if you’ve pictured crocks and were filled with blind range. When you summon up a memory, an infinitely complex process kicks off that gathers all these seperately stored pieces of information and delivers them to you, and it happens almost instantly. Our scientists today still don’t fully understand how the brain does this so futuree scientists are ahead of us, wee know a lot about how memories are formed and stored. But it’s not as simple as ones and zeros to a hard drive. When you have a new experience every aspect of that experience is delivered via your senses to the hipocampus, where the new memoriy is processed. Next the hioppocampus, along with the frontal cortex analyzes the sensory inputs to determine which components , if any, are worth storing longterm. The memory is then encoded to the brain with electrcity and chemicals. Your nerve cells are connected to each other at various points called synapses, and this is where the magic happens. Electrical pulses travel down the neuron to a synapse where a chemical called a neurotransmitter is released. These neurotransmitters float across the small gaop at the synapse and attach to neighboring cells. This is how your neurons communicate and as you learn things your neurons form new connections that will get stronger with repeated use. If this is news to you then it just happened in your own brain when you learned this. While we understand the basics, scientists admit there’s a lot we don’t know about how our brains create, store, and retrieve memories. The brain is just so increbdibly complex that coming up with an easy to understand map of its processes isn’t possible right now. So is it really possible to alter a memory, its important to realize our memories arent se t in stone, they’re pretty malleable. Every time you recall an experience, you reshape it a bit and you’re left with stronger but slightly altered version of that memory. It’s a process known as “Reconsolidation” and it can contribute to things like phobia and PTSD. If you were in a bad car accident, each time you remember it in detail, you may contribute feeling sof fear and memories of physical pain, which are then encoded into the memory, blaring on until you could end up too afraid to even get in a car. So one approach to altering human memory is by changing the emoptional response associated with the memory. Experiments have shown that when the neurotransmitter that causes the flight-fihgt response, norepinephrione, was blocked in the brains of people with traumatic memories, they can disassociate the memories from negative emotions. Neuroimaging studies of false memory show increased activity in the hippocampus as well as within the amygdala, which is part of the brain reposnible for emotional memory. This suggests that emotion and social pressure play a big role in how false memories are formed. Our research todya suggests that memories can be altered, particularly the emotional side of things. We may not yet know how to use tech to overlook memory. But we’re on our way to eternal sunshine levels of memory manipulation. With our current rate of sci advancement its not outside the realm of possiblity for us to change our entire lives. So don’t worry if you messed up your life, because you might be able to chagne everything so that you remember your life being perfect

Here’s a thought experiment, do we have the capacity to change the past? At first this sounds like a contradiction, a paradox, how can you change something that already happened? But why does the past matter at all, what do we get to keep from what already happened? Well we get to keep the memory, either the bliss or the trauma, it’s really the memory we’re talking about, the story that runs on a loop in the back of our minds of what has happens, and somehow the fact that what has happened has shaped us and WILL shape our future, we feel haunted or condemned to be certain way because of what has happened to us. Epigenetics tells us that we are the sum of our experience, that we, our cells, are a technology that turns experience into biology, that everything that happpens to us lays itself like tire tracks tattooing itself across our body mind and literally making us a product of what has come before. And yet here’s something amazing: Our cognitive framing, our interpretation, our use of rhetoric and language to FRAME our past experiences can actually allow us to change our very past experience. So the story we tell ourselves, the story we choose to tell about what has happened can change what has happened. See the sci fi film total recall. They’ve done studies that tell us that the cognitive framing that we give to experiences can change our physiological response to those very experiences. So an experience of trauma seen through a certain lense can physiologically create stress response. Cortisol, stress hormones, anxiety, all these things. But people who do psychodelic hypnotherapy and revisit the trama through this altered state of consciousness are all of a sudden able to change that story and change their chemical response to that past experience and recontextualize it, see it through a different lense and fundamentally change the past. There’s a great line that says “experineces that are transformative in nature, that allow us to change the cognitive framing of who we are and where we’re going in this life and where we’ve been, are experiences that recontextualize the self as a marvelous conduit in a timeless hole from which molecules and meanings flow. From neurons to nebula and back again. And recontextualizing who we are and what we’re doing and everything that happens to us, even when it hurts. The fact of the matter is that the story has now rendered me a stronger being. It is something that has happened and that I had overcome. I have not choked on my introversions, I have re-worked the experience and output it in a work of art. I am more than what I was because of what has happened to me. This decision to lend that cognitive framing, that interpretation, to a traumatic experience of the past has allowed me to change the past and therefore to change my future and decide my fate. I design therefore I become. Again, beautiful idea, we are empowered , enraptureed, we are beings that move through time and space, mind, future, past present, these are basically just elements of a continuous field of time. They don’t exist, they are illusions and you can choose the story you tell. Reserachers have figured out how bad memories are erased from the brain. In the sci fi film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, Jim Carry’s character erases his memories of a relationship after a bad breakup. We’ve wondered when we’ll be able to get rid of all the nasty stuff from our memory, get rid of whatever traumatic stuff messing with you is gone. The secret to getting over a painful memory lies in a process called memory extinction. Over time it becomes easier to walk by the place your breakup happened because the traumatic memory of that place is replaced by recent ones where nothing happened while you walked by there. But what physical process causes memory extinction? What makes those painful memories fade? A new study published by MIT says it all lies in a gene called tec1, which controls the expression of other genes in your hippocampus and cortex. 2 bits of your brain important to learning and memory. 2 groups of mice were studied. One had a normal level of tet1 and one group had its ability to make tet1 removed and all the mice were put into a cage and given an electric shock. Over time, they kept being put into the cage but without ever being shocked again. And the mice with normla tet1 levels were not stressed out by the cage, but the mice without tet1 never stopped being frightened. It’s not that the mice without tet1 couldn’t make new memories, they seemed to learn and remember new things just fine. But memory extinction is not actually about old memories disapeering. Its about having both the new and old memoryes and your brain being able to phase the old one out as it becomes less relevant. The mice without tet1 couldn’t do that. The 2 memories existed just as powerfully at the same time. So, no tet1 means bad memories never lost their importance or clarity. But what happens if you can boost someone’s tet1 levels? The MIT researchers believe it could lead to new treatments for things like addiciton and PTSD and maybe one day trickle down into a pill that helps take the sting out of some of the other traumatic life events that are hard to get over. There are some other things to figure out there too, like does tet1 just wash away ALL old trauma? Can we really create something to target just one specific memory? I love this idea as a form of therapy for people who have had extremely traumatic events in their life, but i’d hate to see it become too widely used. Imagine a future where we have the ability to decide how important every event in our life is and just ditch the ones we dont think are relevant, i feel like that’s a recipe for a society of overconfident dummies. So would you use a memory removal pill?

Its really tricky talking about memory. What really is it besides a recollection of things that happened in the past. What’s going on up here? And is there any way we can make it stronger or even get rid of mnemories we don’t want anymore. This is the stuiff of science fiction, we’ve seen it in men in black, total recall, eternal sunshine, but now scientists and researchers are really looking into it and its incredibly exciting. But first lets go back to the 1960s, that’s when researchers noticed that by stimulating neurons in the hippocampus with a little electricity, they could boost those neurons’ ability to communicate with other neurons, they called ithis stimulation “long term potentiation” or LTP. Now some scientists suspected that LTP was necessary in order to encode memories, but the idea didn’t get wiode acceptance throughout the brain research field. More experiemnts had to be done. For example, what happens if you inhibit LTP? Scientists used mice to find out exactly what does happen, but how can you tell if a mouse is having trouble forming a memory? You use conditioning, which means that you’d expose the mouse to a stimulus like a sound, then follow that up with something unpleasent, like a mild electric shock. Buit scientists found that inhibiting LTP using drugs or genes introduced into the mouse, the mouse was never able to form the memory of sound shock. It just couldn’t remember, so what happens if you DO allow a memory to form, but then try to erase it? That’s what researchers in the university of cali san diego did with rats. Using a technique called “Optogenetics” that means they introduced a gene that can produce light sensitive proteins into the rats brains. They also surgically implanted optiocal fibers into the rats braisn so they could shine light direcly on neurons. Now this stimulated the rats brains as if they had hgeard a sound, even though no sound was playing. The rats then began to associate this feeling with an oncoming electric shock, that conditioning thing. This is where things get crazy. The scientists then used puslses of light to iinduce what’s called long term depression or LTD. Which can actually erase memories, breaking down those neural pathways, and soon the rats forgot that the simulated tone meant they’d get zapped. But then using LTP, the scientists re-introduced that memory, now the rats knew what was coming. This means we now know more about the association with LTP and forming memories, which can guide brain research in the future. This could lead to therapies where people with neurodegenerative diseases or conditions can recaptuire memories they lost. Or perhaps therapists could use this kind of technique to help erase the memories that form when you create a bad habit, like an addiciton. Granted, any kind of therapeutic use of this technology in humans is years if not decades in the future, but I think that these early experiments are definitely wqorth remembering.

There was a known anti-histamine study from basil university that can help erase bad memories. Eternal sunshine style. Another study early in 2013, they were able to cut off a pparticular function of a rat’s brain at the genetic level tet1, to remove the emotional weight of a memory. But some concerns, switching anything off at the genetic level isnt very feasible in humans because we need our genes. Also there was no targeting, so the emotional weight of ALL the memories was removed, so you lose the good with the bad. But that’s whats so rad about the new basil study, there’s a pill that erases the bad stuff but has no effect on neutral or positive memories. A double blind placebo controlled study on humans a single dose of the drug causes significant reduction in the memory recall of seeing negative pictures, but there were no effects on seeing positive or neutral pictures. So does this mean we can finally can get over our traumatic past. So is it a drug? In all seriousness, the good thing about the new pill is that it may open up potential ways to treat PTSD and anxiety disorders, so don’t go asking basil to be a clinical participant in the trial. One clinical trial does not mean its a safe or effective drug just yet, but huge strides have been made in a couple months.They say its based on a known antihistimine, but never mentioned the compound. What if there was a way to forget bad memories altogether? Memory is an incredibly complex process, while scientists used to believe it was like a filing vcabinet and particular memories were stored in specific sections of the brain, in fact, each memory is a brain wide process. The cells in your brain are building new connections, links, and literally re-wiring the circuitry of your mind. This is partially faciilitated by protiens in the brain. So what if the proteins aren’t available? Simply put, memories can’t be made. Scientists have tested by giving animals drugs that prevent these proteins from forming. As a result, the animals have no recollection of the things that took place shortly after the drug was taken. From this research scientists found a way to target long term memories for deletion. Every single time your remember a memory, your brain is again firing and rewiring. In fact, each time you reflect on a memory, you are literally physically changing that memory in your mind. Each time that memory is altered a little, reflecting your current thoughts, remembering is an act of creation and imagining, meaning the more we reflect on old memories, the less accurate they become. Scientists have actually quantified this change. On 911 hundreds of people were asked about therir memory. After a year 37% of the details had changed, by 2004, nearly 50% of the details had changed or gone missing. Because memories are formed and rebuilt every time, if you administer the protein inhibitning drug while recalling a memory, the memory can be effectively removed. to test this, scientists took lab rats and played a sound for them shortly followed by an electric shock. After doing this multiple times, the rats quiclkly learned that if they heard the sound, a shock was soon to follow. As a result they’d stress up and freeze every time they heard it, months later, these rats would still respond to the noise. But if they administered the drug first, the rats would lose the memory of the sound and simply continue on. They’d lost their memory of that specific noise. To be sure the drug wasn’t just causing large scale brain damage, scientists repeated the experiments with multiple tones this time. Both sounds would warn for a shock and eventually the mice wqould fear both. But if they administered the drug and played only one of the sounds. The mice would only forget that one tone while still remaining fearful of the other. Over time, scientists have discovered specific drugs to target particular proteins across different parts of the brain. So if you experience a terrible emotion with the memory, then targeting a protein in the emotional regions of the brain can help to remove that specific connection alone, which could be an amazing tool, especially for patients suffering from something like PTSD. But while these drugs are in the very early stages, if you were given a forgetting pill, would you be willing to take it?

What if someone actually erased your memories? First lets 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 is on connections, rather than a single spot. So a recollection is not stored in one specific cell of your brain, instead its tangled up in all 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 met the love of your life, but everytime you do, that memory becomes malleable again, resseting more vividly then before. Each time you remember something, your brain has to resave some version of that memory. Its like you’re taking a piece of hard chocolate out of a refridgerator and holding it in a warm room or with warm hands and when you put it back, it’s changed, even if just a bit from the exposure, this is known as “reconsolidation” and the more often you revisit a memory, the more it changes. Your brain re-assesses its connections, literally rewireing itself. So lets say for example that you have an unpleasent memory, maybe you were bitten by a spider during your childhood. And every time your remebered this spider bite, you also remembered the pain and the 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. But dont feel doomed just yet. Its possible to tip 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 particular fascinating sutdy found that injecting mice with this substance could brak their fearful associations between musical tones and subsequent shocks. Norepinephrine by the way is the chemical involved in the fight or flight response that people get. This line of research is not quite capable of cretaiong that sci fi amnesia we see in films like eternal sunshine 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 its possible with the right combination fo drugs and treatment to target and erase specific memories. The primary obstancel so far seems to be ethical rather than procedural. Second, healthy people might try to take these treatments simply because they want to erase something. Last thing, there’s a reason our memories exist, 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 dopomed to repeat it’


The same would go for if someone deleted their memory of a crime. No memory, no guilt, some would say. But not the US course, we have some legal precenednce for amnesia. In people vs hibbler illinois 1971, a man wtih chronic alcoholism who didnt remember commiting forgery was convicted for it. and in Lester vs State 1963 they were still guilty even though they didnt remember the crime. Identity is a mobile and flexible concept. Lets say you’re abducted by a man who just cvommited murder and he transfers his last year of memories into you, including the crime and the original motivation for it, and adds your last year to his own, switching the last year for both of you. The process is not reversible. The irritating thing is you have the motivations for the crime now too and you think the victim had it coming. So who do we charge with the murder, and for that matter,  the abduction and mental assault. Is it you with the memories and motiviation for mnurder and the kidnapping of yourself, or them, who remembered none of that except being kidnapped? Lets make that worse, he picked you because you were the passenger in the car that hit his kid and your best friend drove drunk. You lied for yourfriend saying the kid jumpe din the road. So he didnt get convicted. Hitting someone on accident no matter how negligible tyou were, but the father saw it that way and killed your friend, switched memories of it with you. If im innocent right now, can we argue that i’d stop being innocent if I downloaded the memory of a crime into my brain? Will it still be convicted whether it was voluntary or not, because thats a seperate crime and problem. If having thos ememories makes me guilty then anyone else having them is also guilty. So deleting my memories of a crime make sme innocent.

Let’s say we have the ability to edit memories too. Like remove a traumatic experience. Some would argue you shouldn’t do that, that we are the product of those events good or ill. Others might agree in general but would say look, this kid just saw her parents brutally murdered in front o fthem, we won’t remove the death but we can cut the minute they died out. She would remember that the parents are dead, but we are making sure she doesnt develop PTSD. But what about adding memories TO a kid, like sitting through a math lecture. Is this any really different than waltching a recoeding of that math lecture only in high definition. This would then imply some of my identity is being imprinted on your right now. We don inherit a lot of our personality from our parents and what they imprinted on us. We do get a big chunk of our identity altered by thsoe who we interact with. If we are the sum of our memories and I clone myself, mind and all, and it goes and commits a crime, it would be very hard to argue im not guilty too, just because i didnt pull the trigger and dont remember the event.

Newly discovered ways of deleting and creating memories could have a major impact on the lives of patients suffering from phobias, and also transform our legal system. These processes are the focus of the new documentary “Memory Hackers.”

Memory manipulation has always been a hot topic in science fiction.

Films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind let us live vicariously through characters who are able to expunge painful memories or implant them at will. Who doesn’t have an embarrassing moment, a horrible tragedy, or a loss that they’d rather forget?

Well, this isn’t just a movie plot anymore. According to a new documentary that premiered in the US this week, scientists have discovered a way to manipulate memory.


“Memory Hackers,” from PBS’s NOVA documentary strand, explores the newest research in the field of memory.

“For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays it intact,” say the film’s makers. “But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories.”

Among other subjects, the documentary tells the story of Jake Hausler, who, at the age of 12, is the youngest person to be diagnosed with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Hausler can remember just about every single thing he has experienced since the age of 8.

The filmmakers also speak to clinical psychologist Merel Kindt, who has discovered that medication can be used to remove the negative associations of some memories – through which she has managed to ‘cure’ patients of arachnophobia. You can read about some of her research in this peer review article from Biological Psychiatry. 

“Forgetting is probably one of the most important things that brains will do,” says André Fenton, a prominent neuroscientist who is currently working on a technique to erase painful memories. “We understand only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human memory.”


The film also highlights the work of Julia Shaw, a psychology professor at London South Bank University, who has designed a system for implanting false memories, and has successfully convinced subjects they’ve committed crimes that never took place.

This research has massive ethical implications. As Shaw explains,

“After three interviews, 70% of participants
were classified as having false memories of committing a crime (theft, assault, or assault with a weapon) that led to police contact in early adolescence and volunteered a detailed false account. These reported false memories of crime were similar to false memories of noncriminal events and to true memory accounts, having the same kinds of complex descriptive and multi-sensory components.”

Shaw hopes that her research can be used to help address issues of concern related to false confessions. She believes that some questionable interrogation tactics mirror the way memories were falsely implanted in her study.

Memory Hackers debuted in the US on Wednesday night, and will be broadcast on PBS America in the UK at a future date. You can watch full episodes online here to learn more about this research.



Scientists have found a way to manipulate memories by stimulating cholinergic neurons in the amygdala. It means a potential powerful new therapy for victims of PTSD, and could even help restore lost memories.

  • Scientists have been able to selectively erase memories from the minds of rats, mice, and fish.
  • In the future, we may be able to treat PTSD and addiction by helping patients to forget certain memories.


We all have them: Memories we’d just rather forget. A particularly humiliating experience, like that time you peed in the public pool or when you face-planted in front of that girl you were totally in love with.

Oh, wait…those are my memories.

The point is, there are certain experiences that can exercise an outsized, maybe even debilitating, influence over the rest of one’s life. And all kidding aside, there are those who have suffered from terrifying and traumatic life events that color and taint their perceptions (to their great detriment).  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is just one such condition—common to military veterans, war refugees, and victims of rape and other violent crimes.

Now researchers at Stony Brook University may have found a way to actually manipulate memories. If it stands against additional review, it will be a finding with enormous implications, ranging from reassembling shattered lives to overcoming the memory-loss effects of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The new research focused on “tuning” memories by controlling acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter used by the brain in signaling memories. Emotional memory, it is believed, is seated in the amygdala, a part of the limbic system. Acetylcholine is transmitted to the amygdala via cholinergic neurons. Other research has suggested that these neurons are also affected by neurodegenerative disorders, and that amplifying cholinergic activity in the amygdala can enhance emotional memories and their recall.

The Stony Brook University team involved in the new study. They are (left to right): Lorna Role, Li Jiang, and David Talmage. Credit: Stony Brook University


The study, which was published in the journal Neuron, used optogenetics to stimulate certain cholinergic neurons in mice—they heightened its production during the formation of a traumatic memory, which doubled the period of time that the memory subsequently lasted. In a second test, they did the opposite, suppressing amygdalar acetylcholine during a traumatic experience.

They found that, far from producing a fear response, they had actually erased the painful memory altogether.

“This second finding was particularly surprising, as we essentially created fearless mice by manipulating acetylcholine circuits in the brain,” says Lorna Role, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Stony Brook.

Further research will seek to find ways to manipulate these cholinergic neurons in a way that doesn’t involve drug therapy; they are crucial to memory-formation, and it wouldn’t do to tamper overmuch with these important brain mechanisms.

But it opens the door to enhancing or diminishing memories—memory control, essentially, which could be a remarkable therapeutic option for victims of violence, sufferers of PTSD, and even those experiencing memory loss, amnesia, or cognitive decline. Of course, it also conjures darker images of Orwellian dystopias where we manipulate minds and memories, rewriting reality.

But I prefer to think of its positive benefits and imagine all the good such research can do in repairing broken lives.


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