Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Forget Your Worries

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Forget Your Worries

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Repairing Bad Memories" by Stephen S. Hall, in MIT Technology Review, July/August 2013.

PICTURE A FAT, HAIRY TARANTULA. IF YOU'RE among the millions who suffer arachnophobia, even imagining an eight-legged monster can conjure up intense feelings of fear and anxiety, deeply rooted in bad memories.

Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, thinks she can help. As science writer Stephen S. Hall reports in the MIT Technology Review, Schiller's work has turned the conventional wisdom on its head, showing that human memories are by no means immutable. Rather, Hall explains, they're "malleable constructs that may be rebuilt every time they are recalled"--so malleable that our most traumatic memories could possibly be reconfigured to cause us less stress.

For most of the 20th century, scholars envisioned a memory as a permanent imprint on the brain that strengthened with time. That view, known as "consolidation theory," held that any memory act--recalling a friend's birthday, remembering how to drive, or shuddering at the thought of a spider--amounted to simply retrieving a certain file from a mental filing cabinet.

Consolidation theory started to break down with the revelation that memory could be manipulated under the right conditions, beginning with an experiment at Rutgers University in 1968. Researchers conditioned lab rats to expect a small electrical jolt whenever they licked water from a drinking tube after hearing white noise. Immediately after this conditioning, some of the rats received a stronger electroconvulsive shock to the head. The next day, most of the rats were still hesitant to drink when they heard the white noise, lest they invite another jolt--but the group that had received the second zap lapped up water eagerly, their fears erased.

In 2000, New York University psychologists managed to clear rats' memories with pharmaceutical help. Having also trained rats to expect a shock after hearing a particular sound, they injected a drug straight into each animal's amygdala, the part of the brain thought to harbor fear memories. Upon receiving the drug, which stopped the brain from synthesizing proteins, the rodents no longer froze in terror at the sound. …

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