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Memories: eternal sunshine or misery?

by Archives February 7, 2007

Would you want to take away the emotional baggage of a particularly painful memory if you could? Although a far-fetched idea, it is now technically possible.

“I think that memories are slightly overrated to be honest,” said Dr. Karim Nader last Friday. A psychologist who specializes in memory research, he spoke as part of McGill’s ‘Freaky Fridays’ lecture series. The lecture was tied to a screening of the film Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, whose main characters’ memories of a painful relationship are erased.

Nader said athough we think of memories as snapshots of reality, they are continuously changing and susceptible to manipulation. Memories are not stored once and for all. Each time you access a memory, it has to be re-stored in the brain and in the process, it is naturally altered to varying degrees. This helps explain our inaccurate memories of reality. We might be 110 per cent certain of what we remember, but the memory itself may be faulty. “The important thing is that there is no correlation between how sure you are of a memory and its accuracy,” Nader said.

He explained memories are often tied to emotions, and strong emotions result in more vivid memories, especially true for memories tied to fear.

Nader and his research team has found a way to decrease a memory’s emotional baggage. Although the research is still in the early stages, Nader said their work with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers showed promise. Sufferers of PTSD can experience flashbacks and anxiety tied to their memories of a particularily traumatic event. In the worst cases, those suffering from PTSD are unable to function because of their symptoms.

The drug propranolol, if taken while accessing the memory, dampens the emotion when the memory was restored. Although the memory is intact, the emotion is lessened. Their research might eventually also help people suffering from addictions and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

He asserted the benefits far outweighed ethical questions that could arise. Although it is also technically possible to erase memories completely, Nader said this would not be desirable because the person would not understand how parts of his or her life had developed. “Memories make us who we are,” Nader said.

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