Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Out of the Past: Questions about Memory

"Memory is like a phoenix, continually arising out of its own destruction," Kathleen MoGawan, Discover Magazine

As a writer the concept of memory is fascinating both from my personal view and also when creating a believable character.  It is a collection of my experiences and those I image and transfer into a story.  Composing a tale is eerily familiar to how the brain forges a real 'memory,' and I can't help but wonder, because wondering is what I do, how reliable any of it really is.  Can recollections of details be trusted -- referring to accounts of history and memoirs or even just simply repeating an experience.  The expression, "stranger than fiction," for me has an even more scientific implication than I originally considered.  

In terms of trauma, an event can forge a memory that is pathologically potent and can be recalled into consciousness over and over again.  It becomes labeled a psychological trauma when a person deeply wishes to forget, but is unable to forget.  This kind of memory is not a dreamy, watercolor scene, but a relentless flash or reoccurring haunt. 

Until recently, the concept of long-term memory was thought to be physically etched in our brains.   It was believed to be permanent and unchanging.  Now, the talk is that memories are indeed surprisingly vulnerable and dynamic.  Scientists think what we remember can be 'rewired' by adding false information to either make the experience stronger, or weaker and in some feedback suggest an event may completely disappear.  There is evidence that memory is inherently flexible.   So what does this mean?  That is the million dollar question of the day.

Will this further corrode our trust in what we know and how we've come to know it?  Does it poke holes in the reliability of eye-witness testimony, in memoirs and records of historical truths?

Every time a person 'remembers' it appears they add new details, shade the facts, prune and tweak without realizing it and because of this, continually rewrite the stories of their lives. Memory has more in common with imagination -- it is capable of conjuring worlds that never existed and settling into the mind as true and very real experiences.  Like memory, imagination allows a person to place themselves in a time and place other than the one they are actually occupying.  

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus from the University of Washington proved how easy it is to implant a false memory especially one that is plausible simply through suggestion.  It has me searching through all my own memories and wondering what is perhaps altered by suggestion. Or in my case, a very active, creative mind.  How have I unknowingly been influenced over the years and if pressed, could I be convinced differently?

The Reconsolidated Life

As a person replays a memory, it is reawakened and reconsolidated a hundred times.  Each time it is recalled, the original is replaced with a slightly modified version.  Eventually, a person is not really remembering what happened, but is recalling the story of what happened.  Reconsolidation is based on the concept that when a person uses a memory, the one they had originally is no longer valid or maybe no longer accessible.  In other words, your present memory is as only as good as your last memory.

The fewer times you recall a memory, the more 'pristine' it remains.  The more it is used, the more it will change.  Have you ever recanted a dramatic story so many times that it no longer seems exciting or important, as if it lost all the pop and begins to sound more like a lame plot from a novel rather than real life drama?  This is reconsolidation of memories at work.

So what is the purpose of reconsolidating memories?  Essentially, the evident purpose of episodic memory is to store facts in the hope of anticipating what might happen.  Constructive memory is a survival asset.  It allows a person to pull together scraps of information to simulate the future-- or help predict potential success, danger or failure.  In essences, to learn. The brain understands their is a future and is preparing for it, and without memory the brain cannot form a picture of a future.  Memory is how you know who you are, and the method through which one is guided to a certain destination. 

For most, unpleasant memories serve as a guide and because of this, some researchers fear the consequences of undermining appropriately bad memories.  The spotless mind is not liberating, but rather a nightmare of feeling disconnected and lost because a future can not be imaged.  

Also, the Council for Bioethics warns that altering the memory of a violent crime could unleash moral havoc by lifting the repercussions of malice.  "Perhaps no one has a greater interest in blocking the painful memory of evil than the evildoer?" 

Something to chew on.... or in my case, think about when I can't sleep.
Sweet dreams!


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