Tag Archives: memory

Women Are From Venus, Men Can’t Remember

Yet another body of research underscores how different women are from men. This time, we are told, that the sexes generally encode and recall memories differently. So, the next time you take issue with a spouse (of different gender) about a — typically trivial — past event keep in mind that your own actions, mood and gender will affect your recall. If you’re female, your memories may be much more vivid than your male counterpart, but not necessarily more correct. If you (male) won last night’s argument, your spouse (female) will — unfortunately for you — remember it more accurately than you, which of course will lead to another argument.

From WSJ:

Carrie Aulenbacher remembers the conversation clearly: Her husband told her he wanted to buy an arcade machine he found on eBay. He said he’d been saving up for it as a birthday present to himself. The spouses sat at the kitchen table and discussed where it would go in the den.

Two weeks later, Ms. Aulenbacher came home from work and found two arcade machines in the garage—and her husband beaming with pride.

“What are these?” she demanded.

“I told you I was picking them up today,” he replied.

She asked him why he’d bought two. He said he’d told her he was getting “a package deal.” She reminded him they’d measured the den for just one. He stood his ground.

“I believe I told her there was a chance I was going to get two,” says Joe Aulenbacher, who is 37 and lives in Erie, Pa.

“It still gets me going to think about it a year later,” says Ms. Aulenbacher, 36. “My home is now overrun with two machines I never agreed upon.” The couple compromised by putting one game in the den and the other in Mr. Aulenbacher’s weight room.

It is striking how many arguments in a relationship start with two different versions of an event: “Your tone of voice was rude.” “No it wasn’t.” “You didn’t say you’d be working late.” “Yes I did.” “I told you we were having dinner with my mother tonight.” “No, honey. You didn’t.”

How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place—and how they encoded that memory. “You may recall something differently at least in part because you understood it differently at the time,” says Dr. Michael Ross, professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who has studied memory for many years.

Researchers know that spouses sometimes can’t even agree on concrete events that happened in the past 24 hours—such as whether they had an argument or whether one received a gift from the other. A study in the early 1980s, published in the journal “Behavioral Assessment,” found that couples couldn’t perfectly agree on whether they had sex the previous night.

Women tend to remember more about relationship issues than men do. When husbands and wives are asked to recall concrete relationship events, such as their first date, an argument or a recent vacation, women’s memories are more vivid and detailed.

But not necessarily more accurate. When given a standard memory test where they are shown names or pictures and then asked to recall them, women do just about the same as men.

Researchers have found that women report having more emotions during relationship events than men do. They may remember events better because they pay more attention to the relationship and reminisce more about it.

People also remember their own actions better. So they can recall what they did, just not what their spouse did. Researchers call this an egocentric bias, and study it by asking people to recall their contributions to events, as well as their spouse’s. Who cleans the kitchen more? Who started the argument? Whether the event is positive or negative, people tend to believe that they had more responsibility.

Your mood—both when an event happens and when you recall it later—plays a big part in memory, experts say. If you are in a positive mood or feeling positive about the other person, you will more likely recall a positive experience or give a positive interpretation to a negative experience. Similarly, negative moods tend to reap negative memories.

Negative moods may also cause stronger memories. A person who lost an argument remembers it more clearly than the person who won it, says Dr. Ross. Men tend to win more arguments, he says, which may help to explain why women remember the spat more. But men who lost an argument remember it as well as women who lost.

Read the entire article here.

True “False Memory”

Apparently it is surprisingly easy to convince people to remember a crime, or other action, that they never committed. Makes one wonder how many of the around 2 million people in US prisons are incarcerated due to these false memories in both inmates and witnesses.

From ars technica:

The idea that memories are not as reliable as we think they are is disconcerting, but it’s pretty well-established. Various studies have shown that participants can be persuaded to create false childhood memories—of being lost in a shopping mall or hospitalized, or even highly implausible scenarios like having tea with Prince Charles.

The creation of false memories has obvious implications for the legal system, as it gives us reasons to distrust both eyewitness accounts and confessions. It’s therefore important to know exactly what kinds of false memories can be created, what influences the creation of a false memory, and whether false recollections can be distinguished from real ones.

A recent paper in Psychological Science found that 71 percent of participants exposed to certain interview techniques developed false memories of having committed a crime as a teenager. In reality, none of these people had experienced contact with the police during the age bracket in question.

After establishing a pool of potential participants, the researchers sent out questionnaires to the caregivers of these individuals. They eliminated any participants who had been involved in some way with an assault or theft, or had other police contact between the ages of 11 and 14. They also asked the caregivers to describe in detail a highly emotional event that the participant had experienced at this age. The caregivers were asked not to discuss the content of the questionnaire with the participants.

The 60 eligible participants were divided into two groups: one that would be given false memories of committing an assault, theft, or assault with a weapon, and another that would be provided with false memories of another emotional event—an injury, an attack by a dog, or the loss of a large sum of money. In the first of three interviews with each participant, the interviewer presented the true memory that had been provided by the caregiver. Once the interviewer’s credibility and knowledge of the participant’s background had been established, the false memory was presented.

For both kinds of memory, the interviewer gave the participant “cues”, such as their age at the time, people who had been involved, and the time of year. Participants were then asked to recall the details of what had happened. No participants recalled the false event the first time it was mentioned—which would have rung alarm bells—but were reassured that people could often uncover memories like these through effort.

A number of tactics were used to induce the false memory. Social pressure was applied to encourage recall of details, the interviewer attempted to build a rapport with the participants, and the participants were told that their caregivers had corroborated the facts. They were also encouraged to use visualization techniques to “uncover” the memory.

In each of the three interviews, participants were asked to provide as many details as they could for both events. After the final interview, they were informed that the second memory was false, and asked whether they had really believed the events had occurred. They were also asked to rate how surprised they were to find out that it was false. Only participants who answered that they had genuinely believed the false memory, and who could give more than ten details of the event, were classified as having a true false memory. Of the participants in the group with criminal false stories, 71 percent developed a “true” false memory. The group with non-criminal false stories was not significantly different, with 77 percent of participants classified as having a false memory. The details participants provided for their false memories did not differ significantly in either quality or quantity from their true memories.

This study is only a beginning, and there is still a great deal of work to be done. There are a number of factors that couldn’t be controlled for but which may have influenced the results. For instance, the researchers suggest that, since only one interviewer was involved, her individual characteristics may have influenced the results, raising the question of whether only certain kinds of interviewers can achieve these effects. It isn’t clear whether participants were fully honest about having believed in the false memory, since they could have just been trying to cooperate; the results could also have been affected by the fact that there were no negative consequences to telling the false story.

Read the entire article here.

Building a Memory Palace

Feats of memory have long been the staple of human endeavor — for instance, memorizing and recalling Pi to hundreds of decimal places. Nowadays, however, memorization is a competitive sport replete with grand prizes, worthy of a place in an X-Games tournament.

From the NYT:

The last match of the tournament had all the elements of a classic showdown, pitting style versus stealth, quickness versus deliberation, and the world’s foremost card virtuoso against its premier numbers wizard.

If not quite Ali-Frazier or Williams-Sharapova, the duel was all the audience of about 100 could ask for. They had come to the first Extreme Memory Tournament, or XMT, to see a fast-paced, digitally enhanced memory contest, and that’s what they got.

The contest, an unusual collaboration between industry and academic scientists, featured one-minute matches between 16 world-class “memory athletes” from all over the world as they met in a World Cup-like elimination format. The grand prize was $20,000; the potential scientific payoff was large, too.

One of the tournament’s sponsors, the company Dart NeuroScience, is working to develop drugs for improved cognition. The other, Washington University in St. Louis, sent a research team with a battery of cognitive tests to determine what, if anything, sets memory athletes apart. Previous research was sparse and inconclusive.

Yet as the two finalists, both Germans, prepared to face off — Simon Reinhard, 35, a lawyer who holds the world record in card memorization (a deck in 21.19 seconds), and Johannes Mallow, 32, a teacher with the record for memorizing digits (501 in five minutes) — the Washington group had one preliminary finding that wasn’t obvious.

“We found that one of the biggest differences between memory athletes and the rest of us,” said Henry L. Roediger III, the psychologist who led the research team, “is in a cognitive ability that’s not a direct measure of memory at all but of attention.”

The Memory Palace

The technique the competitors use is no mystery.

People have been performing feats of memory for ages, scrolling out pi to hundreds of digits, or phenomenally long verses, or word pairs. Most store the studied material in a so-called memory palace, associating the numbers, words or cards with specific images they have already memorized; then they mentally place the associated pairs in a familiar location, like the rooms of a childhood home or the stops on a subway line.

The Greek poet Simonides of Ceos is credited with first describing the method, in the fifth century B.C., and it has been vividly described in popular books, most recently “Moonwalking With Einstein,” by Joshua Foer.

Each competitor has his or her own variation. “When I see the eight of diamonds and the queen of spades, I picture a toilet, and my friend Guy Plowman,” said Ben Pridmore, 37, an accountant in Derby, England, and a former champion. “Then I put those pictures on High Street in Cambridge, which is a street I know very well.”

As these images accumulate during memorization, they tell an increasingly bizarre but memorable story. “I often use movie scenes as locations,” said James Paterson, 32, a high school psychology teacher in Ascot, near London, who competes in world events. “In the movie ‘Gladiator,’ which I use, there’s a scene where Russell Crowe is in a field, passing soldiers, inspecting weapons.”

Mr. Paterson uses superheroes to represent combinations of letters or numbers: “I might have Batman — one of my images — playing Russell Crowe, and something else playing the horse, and so on.”

The material that competitors attempt to memorize falls into several standard categories. Shuffled decks of cards. Random words. Names matched with faces. And numbers, either binary (ones and zeros) or integers. They are given a set amount of time to study — up to one minute in this tournament, an hour or more in others — before trying to reproduce as many cards, words or digits in the order presented.

Now and then, a challenger boasts online of having discovered an entirely new method, and shows up at competitions to demonstrate it.

“Those people are easy to find, because they come in last, or close to it,” said another world-class competitor, Boris Konrad, 29, a German postdoctoral student in neuroscience. “Everyone here uses this same type of technique.”

Anyone can learn to construct a memory palace, researchers say, and with practice remember far more detail of a particular subject than before. The technique is accessible enough that preteens pick it up quickly, and Mr. Paterson has integrated it into his teaching.

“I’ve got one boy, for instance, he has no interest in academics really, but he knows the Premier League, every team, every player,” he said. “I’m working with him, and he’s using that knowledge as scaffolding to help remember what he’s learning in class.”

Experts in Forgetting

The competitors gathered here for the XMT are not just anyone, however. This is the all-world team, an elite club of laser-smart types who take a nerdy interest in stockpiling facts and pushing themselves hard.

In his doctoral study of 30 world-class performers (most from Germany, which has by far the highest concentration because there are more competitions), Mr. Konrad has found as much. The average I.Q.: 130. Average study time: 1,000 to 2,000 hours and counting. The top competitors all use some variation of the memory-palace system and test, retest and tweak it.

“I started with my own system, but now I use his,” said Annalena Fischer, 20, pointing to her boyfriend, Christian Schäfer, 22, whom she met at a 2010 memory competition in Germany. “Except I don’t use the distance runners he uses; I don’t know anything about the distance runners.” Both are advanced science students and participants in Mr. Konrad’s study.

One of the Washington University findings is predictable, if still preliminary: Memory athletes score very highly on tests of working memory, the mental sketchpad that serves as a shopping list of information we can hold in mind despite distractions.

One way to measure working memory is to have subjects solve a list of equations (5 + 4 = x; 8 + 9 = y; 7 + 2 = z; and so on) while keeping the middle numbers in mind (4, 9 and 2 in the above example). Elite memory athletes can usually store seven items, the top score on the test the researchers used; the average for college students is around two.

“And college students tend to be good at this task,” said Dr. Roediger, a co-author of the new book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.” “What I’d like to do is extend the scoring up to, say, 21, just to see how far the memory athletes can go.”

Yet this finding raises another question: Why don’t the competitors’ memory palaces ever fill up? Players usually have many favored locations to store studied facts, but they practice and compete repeatedly. They use and reuse the same blueprints hundreds of times, and the new images seem to overwrite the old ones — virtually without error.

“Once you’ve remembered the words or cards or whatever it is, and reported them, they’re just gone,” Mr. Paterson said.

Many competitors say the same: Once any given competition is over, the numbers or words or facts are gone. But this is one area in which they have less than precise insight.

In its testing, which began last year, the Washington University team has given memory athletes surprise tests on “old” material — lists of words they’d been tested on the day before. On Day 2, they recalled an average of about three-quarters of the words they memorized on Day 1 (college students remembered fewer than 5 percent). That is, despite what competitors say, the material is not gone; far from it.

Yet to install a fresh image-laden “story” in any given memory palace, a memory athlete must clear away the old one in its entirety. The same process occurs when we change a password: The old one must be suppressed, so it doesn’t interfere with the new one.

One term for that skill is “attentional control,” and psychologists have been measuring it for years with standardized tests. In the best known, the Stroop test, people see words flash by on a computer screen and name the color in which a word is presented. Answering is nearly instantaneous when the color and the word match — “red” displayed in red — but slower when there’s a mismatch, like “red” displayed in blue.

Read the entire article here.

Now Where Did I Put Those Keys?


We all lose our car keys and misplace our cell phones. We leave umbrellas on public transport. We forget things at the office. We all do it — some more frequently than others. And, it’s not merely a symptom of aging. Many younger people seem to be increasingly prone to losing their personal items, perhaps a characteristic of their increasingly fragmented, distracted and limited attention spans.

From the WSJ:

You’ve put your keys somewhere and now they appear to be nowhere, certainly not in the basket by the door they’re supposed to go in and now you’re 20 minutes late for work. Kitchen counter, night stand, book shelf, work bag: Wait, finally, there they are under the mail you brought in last night.

Losing things is irritating and yet we are a forgetful people. The average person misplaces up to nine items a day, and one-third of respondents in a poll said they spend an average of 15 minutes each day searching for items—cellphones, keys and paperwork top the list, according to an online survey of 3,000 people published in 2012 by a British insurance company.

Everyday forgetfulness isn’t a sign of a more serious medical condition like Alzheimer’s or dementia. And while it can worsen with age, minor memory lapses are the norm for all ages, researchers say.

Our genes are at least partially to blame, experts say. Stress, fatigue, and multitasking can exacerbate our propensity to make such errors. Such lapses can also be linked to more serious conditions like depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders.

“It’s the breakdown at the interface of attention and memory,” says Daniel L. Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory.”

That breakdown can occur in two spots: when we fail to activate our memory and encode what we’re doing—where we put down our keys or glasses—or when we try to retrieve the memory. When you encode a memory, the hippocampus, a central part of the brain involved in memory function, takes a snapshot which is preserved in a set of neurons, says Kenneth Norman, a psychology professor at Princeton University. Those neurons can be activated later with a reminder or cue.

It is important to pay attention when you put down an item, or during encoding. If your state of mind at retrieval is different than it was during encoding, that could pose a problem. Case in point: You were starving when you walked into the house and deposited your keys. When you then go to look for them later, you’re no longer hungry so the memory may be harder to access.

The act of physically and mentally retracing your steps when looking for lost objects can work. Think back to your state of mind when you walked into the house (Were you hungry?). “The more you can make your brain at retrieval like the way it was when you lay down that original memory trace,” the more successful you will be, Dr. Norman says.

In a recent study, researchers in Germany found that the majority of people surveyed about forgetfulness and distraction had a variation in the so-called dopamine D2 receptor gene (DRD2), leading to a higher incidence of forgetfulness. According to the study, 75% of people carry a variation that makes them more prone to forgetfulness.

“Forgetfulness is quite common,” says Sebastian Markett, a researcher in psychology neuroscience at the University of Bonn in Germany and lead author of the study currently in the online version of the journal Neuroscience Letters, where it is expected to be published soon.

The study was based on a survey filled out by 500 people who were asked questions about memory lapses, perceptual failures (failing to notice a stop sign) and psychomotor failures (bumping into people on the street). The individuals also provided a saliva sample for molecular genetic testing.

About half of the total variation of forgetfulness can be explained by genetic effects, likely involving dozens of gene variations, Dr. Markett says.

The buildup of what psychologists call proactive interference helps explain how we can forget where we parked the car when we park in the same lot but different spaces every day. Memory may be impaired by the buildup of interference from previous experiences so it becomes harder to retrieve the specifics, like which parking space, Dr. Schacter says.

A study conducted by researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California found that the brain keeps track of similar but distinct memories (where you parked your car today, for example) in the dentate gyrus, part of the hippocampus. There the brain stores separates recordings of each environment and different groups of neurons are activated when similar but nonidentical memories are encoded and later retrieved. The findings appeared last year in the online journal eLife.

The best way to remember where you put something may be the most obvious: Find a regular spot for it and somewhere that makes sense, experts say. If it’s reading glasses, leave them by the bedside. Charge your phone in the same place. Keep a container near the door for keys or a specific pocket in your purse.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Leather key chain. Courtesy of Wikipedia / The Egyptian.


Through the Eyes of Children


The very human invention that is war has taken an incalculable cost since it was first conceived, presumably when the first hunter-gatherers picked up the first rock or fashioned the first club. The cost on the innocent — especially the children — is brutal: death, pain, broken bodies, maimed limbs, fractured minds, shredded families.

Photographer Brian McCarty has chronicled the stories of some victims from the war and violence in the Middle East. In his visits to a therapeutic center in Jerusalem in 2011 he would watch the children work with therapists as they voice their painful memories and fear through art and play. Later, we would re-create their “war art” in photographs, often with the help of the children.

From Wired:

At the Spafford Children’s Center for in East Jerusalem, L.A.–based photographer Brian McCarty watched as a little girl made a crayon drawing of a dead boy. She carefully colors in a red pool of blood around his body. It was a drawing that McCarty would later use to stage one of his photographs for WAR-TOYS, a series that recreates children’s memories and fears of conflict in the Middle East with toys.

“Play can become a mechanism for healing,” says McCarty. Drawing on the tenets of art and play therapy, which help children express emotions in non-verbal ways, he sees WAR-TOYS as providing witness to the often unseen impact of armed conflict on children, while serving as part of these children’s therapeutic process.

McCarty first visited this therapeutic center in 2011 where he would observe as children worked with art and play therapists to tell and draw their stories. The drawings then served as a storyboard of sorts for McCarty, who re-created the scenes using locally purchased toys as characters and props. When possible, he brought the child along to help art direct the shoot.

McCarty worked with children in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, which produced a variety of drawings. Some children drew the keys their families kept as symbols of the homes they had to flee. A few boys portrayed heroic militants with homemade bombs. Young girls in Gaza City often drew mothers and babies near scenes of carnage.

Yet most of the drawings depicted the children’s fears. One boy’s drawing expressed how unattainable safety felt even with defense systems ready. It shows the sky full of incoming rockets and defensive interceptor missiles, while on the ground a bus explodes.

The use of toys as surrogates gives McCarty’s reenactments a playful, fictional distance while shifting the perspective to that of a child’s: closer to the ground, helplessly witnessing the shocking blur of play and violence.

The local toys also reveal the socio-economic layers of the region. While most of the toys in the region were made in China; in Gaza they were often botched discount versions.

And despite some previous efforts to rid the region of war toys, plastic soldiers, guns and bombs are ubiquitous. Notably, Israeli and Palestinian flags figures largely in the children’s drawings, and thus McCarty’s photographs, revealing the intensely divisive tribalism recognized, and sometimes identified with, from an early age.

“I’ve chosen to be as neutral as possible for the project. Much like the kids, I only know that the person shooting at me is a bad guy. They are ‘them,’ no matter which side of the border I’m on,” McCarty says.

McCarty, who has used toys in his photographs for 17 years, views this series as the first phase of a larger project — though gaining access is a challenge. “It took two years and a number of face-to-face meetings for an Israeli NGO to grant me access,” he says.

And that’s only the first difficulty. There’s also an element of danger. He recalled one particularly harrowing photo shoot: “Throughout, the sounds of outbound rockets and concussions from incoming airstrikes grew in intensity. I managed to complete my work, while experiencing first-hand the fear and anxiety the children face throughout their lives.”

See more images and read the full story here.

Image:  Photograph from WAR-TOYS by Brian McCarty. Courtesy of Brian McCarty / Wired.

Rewriting Memories

Important new research suggests that traumatic memories can be rewritten. Timing is critical.

From Technology Review:

It was a Saturday night at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and the second-floor auditorium held an odd mix of gray-haired, cerebral Upper East Side types and young, scruffy downtown grad students in black denim. Up on the stage, neuroscientist Daniela Schiller, a riveting figure with her long, straight hair and impossibly erect posture, paused briefly from what she was doing to deliver a mini-lecture about memory.

She explained how recent research, including her own, has shown that memories are not unchanging physical traces in the brain. Instead, they are malleable constructs that may be rebuilt every time they are recalled. The research suggests, she said, that doctors (and psychotherapists) might be able to use this knowledge to help patients block the fearful emotions they experience when recalling a traumatic event, converting chronic sources of debilitating anxiety into benign trips down memory lane.

And then Schiller went back to what she had been doing, which was providing a slamming, rhythmic beat on drums and backup vocals for the Amygdaloids, a rock band composed of New York City neuroscientists. During their performance at the institute’s second annual “Heavy Mental Variety Show,” the band blasted out a selection of its greatest hits, including songs about cognition (“Theory of My Mind”), memory (“A Trace”), and psychopathology (“Brainstorm”).

“Just give me a pill,” Schiller crooned at one point, during the chorus of a song called “Memory Pill.” “Wash away my memories …”

The irony is that if research by Schiller and others holds up, you may not even need a pill to strip a memory of its power to frighten or oppress you.

Schiller, 40, has been in the vanguard of a dramatic reassessment of how human memory works at the most fundamental level. Her current lab group at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, her former colleagues at New York University, and a growing army of like-minded researchers have marshaled a pile of data to argue that we can alter the emotional impact of a memory by adding new information to it or recalling it in a different context. This hypothesis challenges 100 years of neuroscience and overturns cultural touchstones from Marcel Proust to best-selling memoirs. It changes how we think about the permanence of memory and identity, and it suggests radical nonpharmacological approaches to treating pathologies like post-traumatic stress disorder, other fear-based anxiety disorders, and even addictive behaviors.

In a landmark 2010 paper in Nature, Schiller (then a postdoc at New York University) and her NYU colleagues, including Joseph E. LeDoux and Elizabeth A. Phelps, published the results of human experiments indicating that memories are reshaped and rewritten every time we recall an event. And, the research suggested, if mitigating information about a traumatic or unhappy event is introduced within a narrow window of opportunity after its recall—during the few hours it takes for the brain to rebuild the memory in the biological brick and mortar of molecules—the emotional experience of the memory can essentially be rewritten.

“When you affect emotional memory, you don’t affect the content,” Schiller explains. “You still remember perfectly. You just don’t have the emotional memory.”

Fear training

The idea that memories are constantly being rewritten is not entirely new. Experimental evidence to this effect dates back at least to the 1960s. But mainstream researchers tended to ignore the findings for decades because they contradicted the prevailing scientific theory about how memory works.

That view began to dominate the science of memory at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1900, two German scientists, Georg Elias Müller and Alfons Pilzecker, conducted a series of human experiments at the University of Göttingen. Their results suggested that memories were fragile at the moment of formation but were strengthened, or consolidated, over time; once consolidated, these memories remained essentially static, permanently stored in the brain like a file in a cabinet from which they could be retrieved when the urge arose.

It took decades of painstaking research for neuroscientists to tease apart a basic mechanism of memory to explain how consolidation occurred at the level of neurons and proteins: an experience entered the neural landscape of the brain through the senses, was initially “encoded” in a central brain apparatus known as the hippocampus, and then migrated—by means of biochemical and electrical signals—to other precincts of the brain for storage. A famous chapter in this story was the case of “H.M.,” a young man whose hippocampus was removed during surgery in 1953 to treat debilitating epileptic seizures; although physiologically healthy for the remainder of his life (he died in 2008), H.M. was never again able to create new long-term memories, other than to learn new motor skills.

Subsequent research also made clear that there is no single thing called memory but, rather, different types of memory that achieve different biological purposes using different neural pathways. “Episodic” memory refers to the recollection of specific past events; “procedural” memory refers to the ability to remember specific motor skills like riding a bicycle or throwing a ball; fear memory, a particularly powerful form of emotional memory, refers to the immediate sense of distress that comes from recalling a physically or emotionally dangerous experience. Whatever the memory, however, the theory of consolidation argued that it was an unchanging neural trace of an earlier event, fixed in long-term storage. Whenever you retrieved the memory, whether it was triggered by an unpleasant emotional association or by the seductive taste of a madeleine, you essentially fetched a timeless narrative of an earlier event. Humans, in this view, were the sum total of their fixed memories. As recently as 2000 in Science, in a review article titled “Memory—A Century of Consolidation,” James L. McGaugh, a leading neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, celebrated the consolidation hypothesis for the way that it “still guides” fundamental research into the biological process of long-term memory.

As it turns out, Proust wasn’t much of a neuroscientist, and consolidation theory couldn’t explain everything about memory. This became apparent during decades of research into what is known as fear training.

Schiller gave me a crash course in fear training one afternoon in her Mount Sinai lab. One of her postdocs, Dorothee Bentz, strapped an electrode onto my right wrist in order to deliver a mild but annoying shock. She also attached sensors to several fingers on my left hand to record my galvanic skin response, a measure of physiological arousal and fear. Then I watched a series of images—blue and purple cylinders—flash by on a computer screen. It quickly became apparent that the blue cylinders often (but not always) preceded a shock, and my skin conductivity readings reflected what I’d learned. Every time I saw a blue cylinder, I became anxious in anticipation of a shock. The “learning” took no more than a couple of minutes, and Schiller pronounced my little bumps of anticipatory anxiety, charted in real time on a nearby monitor, a classic response of fear training. “It’s exactly the same as in the rats,” she said.

In the 1960s and 1970s, several research groups used this kind of fear memory in rats to detect cracks in the theory of memory consolidation. In 1968, for example, Donald J. Lewis of Rutgers University led a study showing that you could make the rats lose the fear associated with a memory if you gave them a strong electroconvulsive shock right after they were induced to retrieve that memory; the shock produced an amnesia about the previously learned fear. Giving a shock to animals that had not retrieved the memory, in contrast, did not cause amnesia. In other words, a strong shock timed to occur immediately after a memory was retrieved seemed to have a unique capacity to disrupt the memory itself and allow it to be reconsolidated in a new way. Follow-up work in the 1980s confirmed some of these observations, but they lay so far outside mainstream thinking that they barely received notice.

Moment of silence

At the time, Schiller was oblivious to these developments. A self-described skateboarding “science geek,” she grew up in Rishon LeZion, Israel’s fourth-largest city, on the coastal plain a few miles southeast of Tel Aviv. She was the youngest of four children of a mother from Morocco and a “culturally Polish” father from Ukraine—“a typical Israeli melting pot,” she says. As a tall, fair-skinned teenager with European features, she recalls feeling estranged from other neighborhood kids because she looked so German.

Schiller remembers exactly when her curiosity about the nature of human memory began. She was in the sixth grade, and it was the annual Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. For a school project, she asked her father about his memories as a Holocaust survivor, and he shrugged off her questions. She was especially puzzled by her father’s behavior at 11 a.m., when a simultaneous eruption of sirens throughout Israel signals the start of a national moment of silence. While everyone else in the country stood up to honor the victims of genocide, he stubbornly remained seated at the kitchen table as the sirens blared, drinking his coffee and reading the newspaper.

“The Germans did something to my dad, but I don’t know what because he never talks about it,” Schiller told a packed audience in 2010 at The Moth, a storytelling event.

During her compulsory service in the Israeli army, she organized scientific and educational conferences, which led to studies in psychology and philosophy at Tel Aviv University; during that same period, she procured a set of drums and formed her own Hebrew rock band, the Rebellion Movement. Schiller went on to receive a PhD in psychobiology from Tel Aviv University in 2004. That same year, she recalls, she saw the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a young man undergoes treatment with a drug that erases all memories of a former girlfriend and their painful breakup. Schiller heard (mistakenly, it turns out) that the premise of the movie had been based on research conducted by Joe LeDoux, and she eventually applied to NYU for a postdoctoral fellowship.

In science as in memory, timing is everything. Schiller arrived in New York just in time for the second coming of memory reconsolidation in neuroscience.

Altering the story

The table had been set for Schiller’s work on memory modification in 2000, when Karim Nader, a postdoc in LeDoux’s lab, suggested an experiment testing the effect of a drug on the formation of fear memories in rats. LeDoux told Nader in no uncertain terms that he thought the idea was a waste of time and money. Nader did the experiment anyway. It ended up getting published in Nature and sparked a burst of renewed scientific interest in memory reconsolidation (see “Manipulating Memory,” May/June 2009).

The rats had undergone classic fear training—in an unpleasant twist on Pavlovian conditioning, they had learned to associate an auditory tone with an electric shock. But right after the animals retrieved the fearsome memory (the researchers knew they had done so because they froze when they heard the tone), Nader injected a drug that blocked protein synthesis directly into their amygdala, the part of the brain where fear memories are believed to be stored. Surprisingly, that appeared to pave over the fearful association. The rats no longer froze in fear of the shock when they heard the sound cue.

Decades of research had established that long-term memory consolidation requires the synthesis of proteins in the brain’s memory pathways, but no one knew that protein synthesis was required after the retrieval of a memory as well—which implied that the memory was being consolidated then, too. Nader’s experiments also showed that blocking protein synthesis prevented the animals from recalling the fearsome memory only if they received the drug at the right time, shortly after they were reminded of the fearsome event. If Nader waited six hours before giving the drug, it had no effect and the original memory remained intact. This was a big biochemical clue that at least some forms of memories essentially had to be neurally rewritten every time they were recalled.

When Schiller arrived at NYU in 2005, she was asked by Elizabeth Phelps, who was spearheading memory research in humans, to extend Nader’s findings and test the potential of a drug to block fear memories. The drug used in the rodent experiment was much too toxic for human use, but a class of antianxiety drugs known as beta-adrenergic antagonists (or, in common parlance, “beta blockers”) had potential; among these drugs was propranolol, which had previously been approved by the FDA for the treatment of panic attacks and stage fright. ­Schiller immediately set out to test the effect of propranolol on memory in humans, but she never actually performed the experiment because of prolonged delays in getting institutional approval for what was then a pioneering form of human experimentation. “It took four years to get approval,” she recalls, “and then two months later, they took away the approval again. My entire postdoc was spent waiting for this experiment to be approved.” (“It still hasn’t been approved!” she adds.)

While waiting for the approval that never came, Schiller began to work on a side project that turned out to be even more interesting. It grew out of an offhand conversation with a colleague about some anomalous data described at meeting of LeDoux’s lab: a group of rats “didn’t behave as they were supposed to” in a fear experiment, Schiller says.

The data suggested that a fear memory could be disrupted in animals even without the use of a drug that blocked protein synthesis. Schiller used the kernel of this idea to design a set of fear experiments in humans, while Marie-H. Monfils, a member of the LeDoux lab, simultaneously pursued a parallel line of experimentation in rats. In the human experiments, volunteers were shown a blue square on a computer screen and then given a shock. Once the blue square was associated with an impending shock, the fear memory was in place. Schiller went on to show that if she repeated the sequence that produced the fear memory the following day but broke the association within a narrow window of time—that is, showed the blue square without delivering the shock—this new information was incorporated into the memory.

Here, too, the timing was crucial. If the blue square that wasn’t followed by a shock was shown within 10 minutes of the initial memory recall, the human subjects reconsolidated the memory without fear. If it happened six hours later, the initial fear memory persisted. Put another way, intervening during the brief window when the brain was rewriting its memory offered a chance to revise the initial memory itself while diminishing the emotion (fear) that came with it. By mastering the timing, the NYU group had essentially created a scenario in which humans could rewrite a fearsome memory and give it an unfrightening ending. And this new ending was robust: when Schiller and her colleagues called their subjects back into the lab a year later, they were able to show that the fear associated with the memory was still blocked.

The study, published in Nature in 2010, made clear that reconsolidation of memory didn’t occur only in rats.

Read the entire article here.

The Past is Good For You

From time to time there is no doubt that you will feel nostalgic over some past event or a special place or treasured object. Of course, our sentimental feelings vary tremendously from person to person. But, why do we feel this way, and why is nostalgia important? No too long ago nostalgia was commonly believed to be a neurological disorder (no doubt treatable with prescription medication). However, new research shows that feelings of sentimentality are indeed good for us, individually and as a group.

From the New York Times:

Not long after moving to the University of Southampton, Constantine Sedikides had lunch with a colleague in the psychology department and described some unusual symptoms he’d been feeling. A few times a week, he was suddenly hit with nostalgia for his previous home at the University of North Carolina: memories of old friends, Tar Heel basketball games, fried okra, the sweet smells of autumn in Chapel Hill.

His colleague, a clinical psychologist, made an immediate diagnosis. He must be depressed. Why else live in the past? Nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.

But Dr. Sedikides didn’t want to return to any home — not to Chapel Hill, not to his native Greece — and he insisted to his lunch companion that he wasn’t in pain.

“I told him I did live my life forward, but sometimes I couldn’t help thinking about the past, and it was rewarding,” he says. “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

The colleague remained skeptical, but ultimately Dr. Sedikides prevailed. That lunch in 1999 inspired him to pioneer a field that today includes dozens of researchers around the world using tools developed at his social-psychology laboratory, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale. After a decade of study, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be — it’s looking a lot better.

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.

“Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” Dr. Sedikides says. He considers the first great nostalgist to be Odysseus, an itinerant who used memories of his family and home to get through hard times, but Dr. Sedikides emphasizes that nostalgia is not the same as homesickness. It’s not just for those away from home, and it’s not a sickness, despite its historical reputation.

Nostalgia was originally described as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” by Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the term in 1688. Military physicians speculated that its prevalence among Swiss mercenaries abroad was due to earlier damage to the soldiers’ ear drums and brain cells by the unremitting clanging of cowbells in the Alps.

A Universal Feeling

In the 19th and 20th centuries nostalgia was variously classified as an “immigrant psychosis,” a form of “melancholia” and a “mentally repressive compulsive disorder” among other pathologies. But when Dr. Sedikides, Tim Wildschut and other psychologists at Southampton began studying nostalgia, they found it to be common around the world, including in children as young as 7 (who look back fondly on birthdays and vacations).

“The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America,” Dr. Wildschut says. The topics are universal — reminiscences about friends and family members, holidays, weddings, songs, sunsets, lakes. The stories tend to feature the self as the protagonist surrounded by close friends.

Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week, and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing” — researchers distinguish it from reminiscing — helps them feel better.

To test these effects in the laboratory, researchers at Southampton induced negative moods by having people read about a deadly disaster and take a personality test that supposedly revealed them to be exceptionally lonely. Sure enough, the people depressed about the disaster victims or worried about being lonely became more likely to wax nostalgic. And the strategy worked: They subsequently felt less depressed and less lonely.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Still from “I Love Lucy” U.S. television show. 1955. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Media Multi-Tasking, School Work and Poor Memory

It’s official — teens can’t stay off social media for more than 15 minutes. It’s no secret that many kids aged between 8 and 18 spend most of their time texting, tweeting and checking their real-time social status. The profound psychological and sociological consequences of this behavior will only start to become apparent ten to fifteen year from now. In the meantime, researchers are finding a general degradation in kids’ memory skills from using social media and multi-tasking while studying.

From Slate:

Living rooms, dens, kitchens, even bedrooms: Investigators followed students into the spaces where homework gets done. Pens poised over their “study observation forms,” the observers watched intently as the students—in middle school, high school, and college, 263 in all—opened their books and turned on their computers.

For a quarter of an hour, the investigators from the lab of Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, marked down once a minute what the students were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer—and also using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, surfing the Web. Sitting unobtrusively at the back of the room, the observers counted the number of windows open on the students’ screens and noted whether the students were wearing earbuds.

Although the students had been told at the outset that they should “study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course,” it wasn’t long before their attention drifted: Students’ “on-task behavior” started declining around the two-minute mark as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. By the time the 15 minutes were up, they had spent only about 65 percent of the observation period actually doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Concern about young people’s use of technology is nothing new, of course. But Rosen’s study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior, is part of a growing body of research focused on a very particular use of technology: media multitasking while learning. Attending to multiple streams of information and entertainment while studying, doing homework, or even sitting in class has become common behavior among young people—so common that many of them rarely write a paper or complete a problem set any other way.

But evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

The media multitasking habit starts early. In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and published in 2010, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium. The lead author of the study was Victoria Rideout, then a vice president at Kaiser and now an independent research and policy consultant. Although the study looked at all aspects of kids’ media use, Rideout told me she was particularly troubled by its findings regarding media multitasking while doing schoolwork.

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside,” she says. “I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

For older students, the media multitasking habit extends into the classroom. While most middle and high school students don’t have the opportunity to text, email, and surf the Internet during class, studies show the practice is nearly universal among students in college and professional school. One large survey found that 80 percent of college students admit to texting during class; 15 percent say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.

During the first meeting of his courses, Rosen makes a practice of calling on a student who is busy with his phone. “I ask him, ‘What was on the slide I just showed to the class?’ The student always pulls a blank,” Rosen reports. “Young people have a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once, and this demonstration helps drive the point home: If you’re paying attention to your phone, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in class.” Other professors have taken a more surreptitious approach, installing electronic spyware or planting human observers to record whether students are taking notes on their laptops or using them for other, unauthorized purposes.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Examiner.

Remembering the Future

Memory is a very useful cognitive tool. After all, where would we be if we had no recall of our family, friends, foods, words, tasks and dangers.

But, it turns our that memory may also help us imagine the future — another very important human trait.

[div class=attrib]From the New Scientist:[end-div]

WHEN thinking about the workings of the mind, it is easy to imagine memory as a kind of mental autobiography – the private book of you. To relive the trepidation of your first day at school, say, you simply dust off the cover and turn to the relevant pages. But there is a problem with this idea. Why are the contents of that book so unreliable? It is not simply our tendency to forget key details. We are also prone to “remember” events that never actually took place, almost as if a chapter from another book has somehow slipped into our autobiography. Such flaws are puzzling if you believe that the purpose of memory is to record your past – but they begin to make sense if it is for something else entirely.

That is exactly what memory researchers are now starting to realise. They believe that human memory didn’t evolve so that we could remember but to allow us to imagine what might be. This idea began with the work of Endel Tulving, now at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada, who discovered a person with amnesia who could remember facts but not episodic memories relating to past events in his life. Crucially, whenever Tulving asked him about his plans for that evening, the next day or the summer, his mind went blank – leading Tulving to suspect that foresight was the flipside of episodic memory.

Subsequent brain scans supported the idea, suggesting that every time we think about a possible future, we tear up the pages of our autobiographies and stitch together the fragments into a montage that represents the new scenario. This process is the key to foresight and ingenuity, but it comes at the cost of accuracy, as our recollections become frayed and shuffled along the way. “It’s not surprising that we confuse memories and imagination, considering that they share so many processes,” says Daniel Schacter, a psychologist at Harvard University.

Over the next 10 pages, we will show how this theory has brought about a revolution in our understanding of memory. Given the many survival benefits of being able to imagine the future, for instance, it is not surprising that other creatures show a rudimentary ability to think in this way (“Do animals ever forget?”). Memory’s role in planning and problem solving, meanwhile, suggests that problems accessing the past may lie behind mental illnesses like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, offering a new approach to treating these conditions (“Boosting your mental fortress”). Equally, a growing understanding of our sense of self can explain why we are so selective in the events that we weave into our life story – again showing definite parallels with the way we imagine the future (“How the brain spins your life story”). The work might even suggest some dieting tips (“Lost in the here and now”).

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. Salvador Dalí. Courtesy of Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/Artists Rights Society.[end-div]

Childhood Memory

[div class=attrib]From Slate:[end-div]

Last August, I moved across the country with a child who was a few months shy of his third birthday. I assumed he’d forget his old life—his old friends, his old routine—within a couple of months. Instead, over a half-year later, he remembers it in unnerving detail: the Laundromat below our apartment, the friends he ran around naked with, my wife’s co-workers. I just got done with a stint pretending to be his long-abandoned friend Iris—at his direction.

We assume children don’t remember much, because we don’t remember much about being children. As far as I can tell, I didn’t exist before the age of 5 or so—which is how old I am in my earliest memory, wandering around the Madison, Wis. farmers market in search of cream puffs. But developmental research now tells us that Isaiah’s memory isn’t extraordinary. It’s ordinary. Children remember.

Up until the 1980s, almost no one would have believed that Isaiah still remembers Iris. It was thought that babies and young toddlers lived in a perpetual present: All that existed was the world in front of them at that moment. When Jean Piaget conducted his famous experiments on object permanence—in which once an object was covered up, the baby seemed to forget about it—Piaget concluded that the baby had been unable to store the memory of the object: out of sight, out of mind.

The paradigm of the perpetual present has now itself been forgotten. Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.

The conventional wisdom for older children has been overturned, too. Once, children Isaiah’s age were believed to have memories of the past but nearly no way to organize those memories. According to Patricia Bauer, a professor of psychology at Emory who studies early memory, the general consensus was that a 3-year-old child’s memory was a jumble of disorganized information, like your email inbox without any sorting function: “You can’t sort them by name, you can’t sort them by date, it’s just all your email messages.”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Summer school memories. Retouched New York World-Telegram photograph by Walter Albertin. Courtesy of Wikimedia.[end-div]

Walking Through Doorways and Forgetting

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

The French poet Paul Valéry once said, “The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best.”  In that spirit, consider a situation many of us will find we know too well:  You’re sitting at your desk in your office at home. Digging for something under a stack of papers, you find a dirty coffee mug that’s been there so long it’s eligible for carbon dating.  Better wash it. You pick up the mug, walk out the door of your office, and head toward the kitchen.  By the time you get to the kitchen, though, you’ve forgotten why you stood up in the first place, and you wander back to your office, feeling a little confused—until you look down and see the cup.

So there’s the thing we know best:  The common and annoying experience of arriving somewhere only to realize you’ve forgotten what you went there to do.  We all know why such forgetting happens: we didn’t pay enough attention, or too much time passed, or it just wasn’t important enough.  But a “completely different” idea comes from a team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame.  The first part of their paper’s title sums it up:  “Walking through doorways causes forgetting.”

Gabriel Radvansky, Sabine Krawietz and Andrea Tamplin seated participants in front of a computer screen running a video game in which they could move around using the arrow keys.  In the game, they would walk up to a table with a colored geometric solid sitting on it. Their task was to pick up the object and take it to another table, where they would put the object down and pick up a new one. Whichever object they were currently carrying was invisible to them, as if it were in a virtual backpack.??Sometimes, to get to the next object the participant simply walked across the room. Other times, they had to walk the same distance, but through a door into a new room. From time to time, the researchers gave them a pop quiz, asking which object was currently in their backpack.  The quiz was timed so that when they walked through a doorway, they were tested right afterwards.  As the title said, walking through doorways caused forgetting: Their responses were both slower and less accurate when they’d walked through a doorway into a new room than when they’d walked the same distance within the same room.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Doorway, Titicaca, Bolivia. Courtesy of M.Gerra Assoc.[end-div]

What Did You Have for Breakfast Yesterday? Ask Google

Memory is, well, so 1990s. Who needs it when we have Google, Siri and any number of services to help answer and recall everything we’ve ever perceived and wished to remember or wanted to know. Will our personal memories become another shared service served up from the “cloud”?

[div class=attrib]From the Wilson Quarterly:[end-div]

In an age when most information is just a few keystrokes away, it’s natural to wonder: Is Google weakening our powers of memory? According to psychologists Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard, the Internet has not so much diminished intelligent recall as tweaked it.

The trio’s research shows what most computer users can tell you anecdotally: When you know you have the Internet at hand, your memory relaxes. In one of their experiments, 46 Harvard undergraduates were asked to answer 32 trivia questions on computers. After each one, they took a quick Stroop test, in which they were shown words printed in different colors and then asked to name the color of each word. They took more time to name the colors of Internet-related words, such as modem and browser. According to Stroop test conventions, this is because the words were related to something else that they were already thinking about—yes, they wanted to fire up Google to answer those tricky trivia questions.

In another experiment, the authors uncovered evidence suggesting that access to computers plays a fundamental role in what people choose to commit to their God-given hard drive. Subjects were instructed to type 40 trivia-like statements into a dialog box. Half were told that the computer would erase the information and half that it would be saved. Afterward, when asked to recall the statements, the students who were told their typing would be erased remembered much more. Lacking a computer backup, they apparently committed more to memory.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

How Much of Your Memory Is True?

[div class=attrib]From Discover:[end-div]

Rita Magil was driving down a Montreal boulevard one sunny morning in 2002 when a car came blasting through a red light straight toward her. “I slammed the brakes, but I knew it was too late,” she says. “I thought I was going to die.” The oncoming car smashed into hers, pushing her off the road and into a building with large cement pillars in front. A pillar tore through the car, stopping only about a foot from her face. She was trapped in the crumpled vehicle, but to her shock, she was still alive.

The accident left Magil with two broken ribs and a broken collarbone. It also left her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a desperate wish to forget. Long after her bones healed, Magil was plagued by the memory of the cement barriers looming toward her. “I would be doing regular things—cooking something, shopping, whatever—and the image would just come into my mind from nowhere,” she says. Her heart would pound; she would start to sweat and feel jumpy all over. It felt visceral and real, like something that was happening at that very moment.

Most people who survive accidents or attacks never develop PTSD. But for some, the event forges a memory that is pathologically potent, erupting into consciousness again and again. “PTSD really can be characterized as a disorder of memory,” says McGill University psychologist Alain Brunet, who studies and treats psychological trauma. “It’s about what you wish to forget and what you cannot forget.” This kind of memory is not misty and water­colored. It is relentless.

More than a year after her accident, Magil saw Brunet’s ad for an experimental treatment for PTSD, and she volunteered. She took a low dose of a common blood-pressure drug, propranolol, that reduces activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions. Then she listened to a taped re-creation of her car accident. She had relived that day in her mind a thousand times. The difference this time was that the drug broke the link between her factual memory and her emotional memory. Propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline, so it prevented her from tensing up and getting anxious. By having Magil think about the accident while the drug was in her body, Brunet hoped to permanently change how she remembered the crash. It worked. She did not forget the accident but was actively able to reshape her memory of the event, stripping away the terror while leaving the facts behind.

Brunet’s experiment emerges from one of the most exciting and controversial recent findings in neuroscience: that we alter our memories just by remembering them. Karim Nader of McGill—the scientist who made this discovery—hopes it means that people with PTSD can cure themselves by editing their memories. Altering remembered thoughts might also liberate people imprisoned by anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, even addiction. “There is no such thing as a pharmacological cure in psychiatry,” Brunet says. “But we may be on the verge of changing that.”

[div class=attrib]More from theSource here[end-div]

The Memory Code

[div class=attrib]From Scientific American:[end-div]

Researchers are closing in on the rules that the brain uses to lay down memories. Discovery of this memory code could lead to the design of smarter computers and robots and even to new ways to peer into the human mind.

Anyone who has ever been in an earthquake has vivid memories of it: the ground shakes, trembles, buckles and heaves; the air fills with sounds of rumbling, cracking and shattering glass; cabinets fly open; books, dishes and knickknacks tumble from shelves. We remember such episodes–with striking clarity and for years afterward–because that is what our brains evolved to do: extract information from salient events and use that knowledge to guide our responses to similar situations in the future. This ability to learn from past experience allows all animals to adapt to a world that is complex and ever changing.

For decades, neuroscientists have attempted to unravel how the brain makes memories. Now, by combining a set of novel experiments with powerful mathematical analyses and an ability to record simultaneously the activity of more than 200 neurons in awake mice, my colleagues and I have discovered what we believe is the basic mechanism the brain uses to draw vital information from experiences and turn that information into memories. Our results add to a growing body of work indicating that a linear flow of signals from one neuron to another is not enough to explain how the brain represents perceptions and memories. Rather, the coordinated activity of large populations of neurons is needed.

Furthermore, our studies indicate that neuronal populations involved in encoding memories also extract the kind of generalized concepts that allow us to transform our daily experiences into knowledge and ideas. Our findings bring biologists closer to deciphering the universal neural code: the rules the brain follows to convert collections of electrical impulses into perception, memory, knowledge and, ultimately, behavior. Such understanding could allow investigators to develop more seamless brain-machine interfaces, design a whole new generation of smart computers and robots, and perhaps even assemble a codebook of the mind that would make it possible to decipher–by monitoring neural activity–what someone remembers and thinks.

My group’s research into the brain code grew out of work focused on the molecular basis of learning and memory. In the fall of 1999 we generated a strain of mice engineered to have improved memory. This “smart” mouse–nicknamed Doogie after the brainy young doctor in the early-1990s TV dramedy Doogie Howser, M.D.—learns faster and remembers things longer than wild-type mice. The work generated great interest and debate and even made the cover of Time magazine. But our findings left me asking, What exactly is a memory?

Scientists knew that converting perceptual experiences into long-lasting memories requires a brain region called the hippocampus. And we even knew what molecules are critical to the process, such as the NMDA receptor, which we altered to produce Doogie. But no one knew how, exactly, the activation of nerve cells in the brain represents memory. A few years ago I began to wonder if we could find a way to describe mathematically or physiologically what memory is. Could we identify the relevant neural network dynamic and visualize the activity pattern that occurs when a memory is formed?

For the better part of a century, neuroscientists had been attempting to discover which patterns of nerve cell activity represent information in the brain and how neural circuits process, modify and store information needed to control and shape behavior. Their earliest efforts involved simply trying to correlate neural activity–the frequency at which nerve cells fire–with some sort of measurable physiological or behavioral response. For example, in the mid-1920s Edgar Adrian performed electrical recordings on frog tissue and found that the firing rate of individual stretch nerves attached to a muscle varies with the amount of weight that is put on the muscle. This study was the first to suggest that information (in this case the intensity of a stimulus) can be conveyed by changes in neural activity–work for which he later won a Nobel Prize.

Since then, many researchers using a single electrode to monitor the activity of one neuron at a time have shown that, when stimulated, neurons in different areas of the brain also change their firing rates. For example, pioneering experiments by David H. Hubel and Torsten N. Wiesel demonstrated that the neurons in the primary visual cortex of cats, an area at the back of the brain, respond vigorously to the moving edges of a bar of light. Charles G. Gross of Princeton University and Robert Desimone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that neurons in a different brain region of the monkey (the inferotemporal cortex) can alter their behavior in response to more complex stimuli, such as pictures of faces.

[div class=attrib]More from the source here.[end-div]