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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

If You Could Pop A Pill To Forget, Would You?

(Flickr/Grumpy-Puddin)

We remember everything from the taste of our favorite ice cream flavor to the feeling of losing a loved one.

And new research in the works may help people forget painful memories with a drug.

People tend to think that our memories are just sitting in our brains, like some sort of file in a computer hard drive.

But researchers now say that’s all wrong. Our memories aren’t static, they’re constantly changing, because each time we recall a memory, we rebuild it from scratch.

Jonah Lehrer wrote about this research in a recent Wired magazine article:

Memories are not formed and then pristinely maintained, as neuroscientists thought; they are formed and then rebuilt every time they’re accessed. “The brain isn’t interested in having a perfect set of memories about the past,” [neuroscientist Joseph] LeDoux says. “Instead, memory comes with a natural updating mechanism, which is how we make sure that the information taking up valuable space inside our head is still useful. That might make our memories less accurate, but it probably also makes them more relevant to the future.”

Lehrer also wrote about research that is helping people forget the pain associated with memories.

One technique is to give people beta-blockers, which inhibit emotional responses. The therapy requires people to recall the event while taking the beta-blocker. Since memories are rebuilt each time we recall them, the new memory would be free of the intense emotions. So, while a soldier might still remember a devastating battle, he could disassociate the emotion that led to debilitating post traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, the holy grail of memory research would be a pill that could wipe out a memory (or negative emotion) all together.

Lehrer says memory erasure would work by asking people to remember something, while they take a drug to block a protein that rebuilds memory. Since the protein needed to rebuilt the memory would be missing, the memory would cease to exist.

Lehrer says this type of research raises lots of ethical questions.

If our memories make us who we are, what does it mean to erase part of our memories. Are we deleting part of ourselves?

Fortunately, we won’t have to grapple with those issues for several years, since Lehrer says a so-called forgetting pill is still five to ten years from reality.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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