Manipulations of Memory
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2010
Manipulations of Memory
Memories are necessary to navigate the world and define ourselves. We assume that our memories are accurate and trustworthy but scientific studies are repeatedly showing us that assumption is false. If our brain is "lying to us," what are the implications of that on our understanding of our own experiences, history and self-identity? Does this change our treatment and dealings with individuals with memory disorders? Recent research has focused on way we can intentionally manipulate memories: to delete "harmful" memories, create or edit memories. We are interested in investigating these techniques- psychotherapy, psychopharmaceuticals, cognitive behavioral therapy- and the effects of these treatments on society's perspective on memory.
"It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also, but in the end it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane human being ever trusts someone else's version more than his own." Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children
- Deja Vu, Again and Again, New York Times, July, 2006.
- Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory, New York Times, April, 2009.
- EMDR: Taking A Closer Look, Scientific American, December, 2007.
Some relevant thoughts from last week:
Anxiety, like depression, may actually be helpful in certain circumstances ... If a person's conscious reality seems harmfully anxious then that is all that really matters ... mrobbins
To what extent do individual realities shape cultural reality ... and vice-versa? How variable is one's reality? ... kenglander
I think culture plays a huge role in the development of anxiety ... Bo-Rin Kim
anxiety is surely uncomfortable, but if we eliminate it it completely, we might induce more drastic problems in other areas. (If you block anxiety, as David said, you likely have a less motivated population - I think this obviously leads to a society that does not function as well) ... Sarah
it seems that it would matter whether the source of anxiety was based in a fear of social interaction as compared to a general fear of the unknown. But doesn’t this argument just lead us back into the conscious vs. unconscious discussion? ... EB
My main thought when presented with a situation like two different people have anxiety and one copes with it fine while the other has an anxiety disorder can only leave me with a few options for why this can be. Either there is a mutation that causes there to be less of a suppression in the person with the anxiety disorder or maybe the personality of the individual who copes with the disorder helps them to turn this negative into a positive ... Vadilson
While fMRI may not give us an accurate portrayal of what brain regions are involved in certain behaviors, it gives us a starting point to investigate further ... Bo-Rin Kim
Can't we just calibrate the fMRI to any individual in the same way that the studies did to their subjects? And even the generalization across people does not seem, in principle, altogether impossible ... David F
While I want to agree that there is an "uncalibrateable and non-generalizable individual distinctiveness" that exists in each person, I am a bit confused about how scientists can arrive at that conclusion when they are using techniques that are supposed to be generalizable across subjects ... kenglander
Because imaging techniques look for areas of strong localized activity, it seems unlikely that fMRI would ever be able to detect a subtle and diffuse signal characteristic of recalling a particular memory ... LMcCormick
Discussion summary (David)
Our discussion began with a return to the concept of anxiety. Although anxiety is often viewed as a negative state, we considered its positive utility, and even entertained the possibility that anxiety could be integral to our very functioning. Much of this discussion was contextualized in terms of success and informed in large part by a finding that many CEO’s are more anxious individuals, raising the question: is stress a critical part of becoming successful? Or in other words, could people be successful in the same way without anxiety? Some students affirmed this possibility, saying that mere planning does not seem to necessitate anxiety, and that this planning can be equally effective in accomplishing one’s goals. However, others felt that anxiety, or at least a form of discontentedness, plays a crucial role in driving someone to achieve lofty ambitions (e.g., Sara Berman’s example of Darwin exhibiting symptoms of depression).
In support of the possibility that anxiety does not play a crucial role in success, Professor Grobstein mentioned that many skilled animal trainers use only positive reinforcement: could purely positive reinforcement permit success without the stress of failure? Many students responded by considering anxiety-inducing effects of positive reinforcement, such as in the confusion required to achieve obscure, rewarded behaviors. Final thoughts included accounts of successful individuals without obvious signs of stress (e.g., the pilot who landed a malfunctioning plane in the Hudson River) and the possibility that stress covaries with other traits which themselves promote success (e.g., for CEO’s), suggesting that stress per se may be irrelevant to success. Professor Grobstein also commented on the peculiarity of the class’ ardor in defense of stress as a component of success.
Much of our discussion on imaging hinged on taking seriously the possibility of fMRI’s capacity to “read minds.” We first discussed some practical hindrances to this use, such as the prohibitively extensive individualized calibration that must take place in order to read his/her thoughts. This led into a more fundamental discussion as to whether an fMRI could, in principle, read thoughts. One essential question that this discussion raised was whether there is a fixed relationship between a thought and a neural pattern. Perspectives that addressed this question ranged from a thought that several approaches might lead to a single thought (therefore precluding a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and patterns) and a thought that the constantly changing brain precludes any fixed relationship between a brain pattern and a thought. This latter idea was compared to the Mississippi River which, although a single entity, can inhere in an infinite set of variable physical manifestations.
Our discussion of memory began with the article on PKMzeta, a molecule that has been recently implicated in the process of memory. We first considered the ethics of studying this molecule, given its potential for abuse, and whether its potential benefits outweigh those risks. A distinction was made between researching a molecule and producing it pharmacologically. Given that many of the ethical questions hinged on the possibility of erasing a single memory, we then explored the biological feasibility of doing so. Although we articulated several ways in which one might block the formation/activity of PKMzeta, we decided that we needed to know more about it before speculating about its uses.
We discussed the usefulness of understanding PKMzeta in the context of Alzheimer’s disease, and how a PKMzeta-targeting drug developed to the end of treating it might be abused by “normal” people. We also discussed PKMzeta in the context of addiction, and whether it could ameliorate the symptoms of addiction. Is PKMzeta implicated in procedural memory or “addiction memory” in the same way as other memories? Would disrupting it maintain symptoms of withdrawal and relapse?
We then transitioned into a discussion of EMDR therapy, and whether or not this is an option that should be taken seriously. We reviewed the data presented in the article regarding its benefits in comparison to CBT and nothing, and discussed whether these findings convinced us of EMDR’s usefulness. EMDR was compared to a placebo effect, which raised the question of its legitimacy and even the ethics of implementing it in the treatment of suffering patients
Our discussion then turned to déjà vu, and how its existence forces/allows us to break down the phenomenon of memory. Does it, for example, imply that there is a “tag” that accompanies an experience to signify that it occurred in the past? The phenomenon of déjà vu also encouraged us to consider the relationship/similarities/differences between memory and familiarity. One proposed mechanism was that familiarity functions as a template, and a consecutive sequence of familiarity produces a memory. Other discussed features of déjà vu included a seemingly necessary component of feeling startled, and how déjà vu might interact with consciousness versus unconsciousness. We also discussed the feasibility of déjà vu’s proposed mechanisms, which led us to question whether we have any “true” memories at all.
Continuing conversation in on-line forum below