If you’ve ever seen the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the way the characters choose to have memories erased from their brain. They visit a doctor, wear a special piece of headgear, and poof! All the bad memories are gone.
Can this be done in real life? Well, the answer is complicated...
Although we are a long way away from being able to selectively erase memories in humans, researchers have done so in rats for over a decade. How do they do this?
Firstly, making a memory requires protein synthesis, among other things. Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of your body and your brain. There are millions of different kinds of proteins, each with its own highly specialized function. When your brain encodes a memory for the long term, your neurons make specific new proteins to form stronger links between the activated neurons to stabilize the memory in your brain. This is called ‘memory consolidation’.
It turns out, however, that our memories are not like video cameras that record our actual experiences. Instead, throughout our lives, our brains are constantly updating our memories with new information. This occurs through a process of the destabilization of the wiring of those neurons that store a particular memory. When a memory is reactivated, it is removed from its stable state, allowing it to be edited.
Because memories are so delicate, neuroscientists have been examining the possibility of removing ‘bad’ (something scary, sad, or upsetting) memories that humans encounter over their lifetimes.
Neuroscience research using mice has found that by stopping protein synthesis of a special receptor (called an AMPA receptor) right after a mouse experiences an electrical shock to its foot, it is possible to remove the negative memory!
Researchers have also been able to remove bad memories in humans using small amounts of electricity to the brain during the reconsolidation of memories. In addition, therapies involving specialized medication to alter protein formation for memory development — as well as talk-therapies — have been found to be useful in alleviating the negative memories in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or severe anxiety.
While the process of removing memories remains an area of interest for researchers, it is important to remember that our memories, good and bad, are what make us who we are. As a result, the ability for humans to remove their memories should be carefully considered because many of our bad memories not only serve to teach us more about ourselves and our world, they also help us to grow as individuals across our lifetimes by leading us to discover new life pathways, environments, and opportunities.
Without these bad memories, we would never have had the opportunity to learn how to develop the courage and expertise to overcome hectic life challenges, nor the ability to recognize our weaknesses and learn how to improve upon those aspects of ourselves that make us so very hopelessly, undeniably, and characteristically, human.
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