Monday, 20 February 2012

A pill to forget

There is a fascinating article on about how memory is thought to work - and how it may be possible to chemically remove troublesome memories, such as those causing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

On formation of memory it states:
Every memory begins as a changed set of connections among cells in the brain. If you happen to remember this moment—the content of this sentence—it’s because a network of neurons has been altered, woven more tightly together within a vast electrical fabric. This linkage is literal: For a memory to exist, these scattered cells must become more sensitive to the activity of the others, so that if one cell fires, the rest of the circuit lights up as well. Scientists refer to this process as long-term potentiation, and it involves an intricate cascade of gene activations and protein synthesis that makes it easier for these neurons to pass along their electrical excitement. Sometimes this requires the addition of new receptors at the dendritic end of a neuron, or an increase in the release of the chemical neurotransmitters that nerve cells use to communicate. Neurons will actually sprout new ion channels along their length, allowing them to generate more voltage. Collectively this creation of long-term potentiation is called the consolidation phase, when the circuit of cells representing a memory is first linked together. Regardless of the molecular details, it’s clear that even minor memories require major work. The past has to be wired into your hardware.

I posted the following comment.

Since reading a couple of months ago about people who can remember every day of their lives back to early childhood, I've been conducting an experiment remembering every day going forward and reclaiming as many memories for specific dates in the past. It is working surprisingly well and having a wider impact on the effectiveness of my memory.

My experience chimes with the reconsolidation theory explained in this article. I have memory tags consisting of trigger images pinned to a mental calendar. These become embedded through a process of remembering the images for the past ten days or so and then for the same day of the week for dates beyond this window and, if time allows, the same day in past months and the same date in previous years (where I have to fish around for clues as I didn't record memory tags at the time).

I'm blogging about this experiment here:

This has convinced me of the capacity of the mind: this process seems to be getting easier with practice, not harder as my memories accumulate.

It has also shown me that the memories I retain are to a large extent a matter of choice: I remember who I was with, what I did, conversations, the weather. But not what I ate or what was in the news, because in general I don't use those factors in my memory tags - though occassionally I do and perhaps I will be able to add them to the richness of the memory as I become more skilled.

It has also shown me that it is as easy to record false memories, which I think I am avoiding because in reinforcing the memory tags (perhaps I should now say "reconsolidating") I don't cement in something as fact unless I am sure; sometimes it is tempting to just say, "It probably was on that Thursday" but I resist.

One other thought is that I find to an extent some validity in the memory as video view because from the memory tags I have been able to identify the details and timing of events that I had not made a point of remembering at the time. There is a trivial example on my blog of trying to remember when I had made a cake which explains how this worked:

My idea is to continue this for some months and then, in parallel, try to pin down more for the dates before I began this process - that is where I will encounter painful memories (though, not doubt, I also face some in the future) which invoke a strong physical and mental reaction when I do call them up. I'm not sure I would want to zap them with pills, though.

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