A common metaphor for memory is a video recording: We think of our memory as a recording that we simply rewind and play back to look at specific events. But this metaphor is inaccurate because the sensory (such as sight, sound, and touch) components are stored in different areas of the brain than are emotional (such as fear or love) components. Every time we remember a specific event, our brains must reassemble the various parts of it.
Memories of traumatic events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a common condition in soldiers returning from war and in people who have experienced other traumatic events like carjacking. PTSD involves flashback memories of traumatic experiences. Symptoms of the condition include insomnia, nightmares, loss of concentration, anxiety, and panic attacks.
If our brains must reassemble the pieces of memory every time we remember an experience, might it not be possible to change how this reassembly occurs? This article reports on research into treating PTSD by altering patients’ memories with either drugs or behavioral therapy:
A paper recently published in the journal Biological Psychiatry … reviews a growing body of scientific literature on memory reconsolidation, a relatively new (and, in humans, still somewhat contentious) concept in which old information is called to mind, modified with the help of drugs or behavioral interventions, and then re-stored with new information incorporated—like a piece of metal that’s been melted down, remolded, and left to harden into a different shape.
But even if altering memories like this is possible, is it ethical?
Slippery philosophical quandaries abound: Does the act of taking a pill to change memory require different ethical considerations than something like psychotherapy or hypnotism? Could it pave the way for more ominous applications? And is the altering of memories a humane way of helping those who suffer, or is it some fundamental violation of what makes humans, well, human?
As one researcher asks:
“If you could edit your own memories, are there any memories you’d want to get rid of? If you have a memory of a painful event, do you lose some part of yourself if you get rid of it? Would that be worth the trade?”
This report in USA Today is a good companion to the article above, although it’s necessary to point out that the research was done on mice: “researchers say they’ve devised a technique to change a lab mouse’s bad memory of a particular place into a good memory, and vice versa.”
This research was possible because of the nature of memory:
Memory “is actually not like a tape recorder or camcorder of the past. It’s a reconstruction of the past every time you recall a memory,” says neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, a co-author of the new study and a graduate student at MIT. The new findings are “a testament to how unreliable certain memories can be, despite our convictions.”
This experiment demonstrates where mice store memories in their brains, but be sure to read what the preceding article says about extrapolating animal results to humans. And don’t forget the ethical implications:
There are potential ethical issues with changing a patient’s memories as a form of medical treatment, says Karen Rommelfanger, director of Emory University’s Neuroethics Program. For example, would a memory change have side effects, perhaps on a patient’s identity and interactions with others? But as long as the ethical issues are discussed early, Rommelfanger thinks it’s worth pursuing these results, especially for their possible application to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here’s the weekly does of good news:
The world is not always fair. The bad are not always punished and the good do not always prevail.
But there are plenty of reasons, scientifically tested, to have hope and be positive about the future.
A leading neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity shares her research on where genius comes from, whether it is dependent on high IQ—and why it is so often accompanied by mental illness.
Nancy C. Andreasen began her career as an English professor interested in the high incidence of mental illness in highly creative people, particularly writers. After publishing a book about poet John Donne, she decided she wanted a career that might save people’s lives. She enrolled in medical school and began working with patients who had schizophrenia and other mood disorders. “I was drawn to psychiatry because at its core is the most interesting and complex organ in the human body: the brain”:
I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity? Over the course of my life, I’ve kept coming back to two more-specific questions: What differences in nature and nurture can explain why some people suffer from mental illness and some do not? And why are so many of the world’s most creative minds among the most afflicted? My latest study, for which I’ve been scanning the brains of some of today’s most illustrious scientists, mathematicians, artists, and writers, has come closer to answering this second question than any other research to date.
In this article Andreasen presents the history of the study of intelligence and creativity, and discusses the results and significance of her own work.
One of the most infamous behavioral experiments was the 1971 prison experiment by Philip Zimbardo. This is one of the experiments that lead to the codification of informed consent that must be obtained by research participants and ethical guidelines that govern research design. I did not know until just recently that this experiment has its own web site.
I’ll let Philip Zimbardo himself describe the experiment for you:
Welcome to the Stanford Prison Experiment web site, which features an extensive slide show and information about this classic psychology experiment, including parallels with the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does humanity win over evil, or does evil triumph? These are some of the questions we posed in this dramatic simulation of prison life conducted in the summer of 1971 at Stanford University.
How we went about testing these questions and what we found may astound you. Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Please join me on a slide tour describing this experiment and uncovering what it tells us about the nature of human nature.
Fake memoirs should not simply be dismissed and pulped by their publishers, according to an academic who argues that they can be great works of fiction.
The merits of the writing itself are often overlooked in the outrage and lawsuits that can follow the exposure of a supposed work of non-fiction or of an author who invents a bogus life story. So says Professor Sue Vice, author of the forthcoming book Textual Deceptions: False Memoirs and Literary Hoaxes in the Contemporary Era.
If you are interested in the writing and reading of memoir, you’ve heard about the fate of fake memoirs. Once a memoir has been found to be in any way embellished and therefore not strictly a factual account of the writer’s experience, the author is vilified and the book is denounced and often removed from bookstore shelves.
Here’s how Professor Sue Vice explains her position:
“Readers might feel angry or betrayed when they discover the truth [that a particular memoir is not completely factual]. But I wonder if very strict boundaries between different literary genres are partly to blame. If memoirs include even a small amount of fictional or reconstructed material, they may be judged as wholly worthless, even though they may have value in literary or psychological terms that exceeds their truth value.”
I even agree with her statement that stories that include some “amount of fictional or reconstructed material” may “have value in literary or psychological terms that exceeds their truth value.”
But let there be no misunderstanding: the difference between writing a memoir and writing a fictional account is more than “changing genres.” Of course all fiction in autobiographical in the most basic sense that it presents the author’s view of the world. But when authors call their book a memoir, they are using a word that readers will understand to mean something like “a truthful account of the writer’s personal experience.” Describing a book as a memoir is a tacit agreement with readers that you haven’t made any of this stuff up. When a so-called memoir is exposed as a not totally accurate narration of the writer’s actual experience, readers—and consumers who have purchased the book under false pretenses—have a right to feel cheated and betrayed.
I’m not saying that a fictionalized account can’t have literary or psychological value. I’m just saying that if your story is fictionalized, you should call it a novel, not a memoir.