Storage is the more or less passive process of retaining information in the brain, whether in the sensory memory, the short-term memory or the more permanent long-term memory. Each of these different stages of human memory function as a sort of filter that helps to protect us from the flood of information that confront us on a daily basis, avoiding an overload of information and helping to keep us sane. The more the information is repeated or used, the more likely it is to be retained in long-term memory (which is why, for example, studying helps people to perform better on tests). This process of consolidation, the stabilizing of a memory trace after its initial acquisition.
Memory-zapping devices like those in “Men in Black” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” could soon be a thing of the past (if they were ever a thing at all), as researchers have now discovered a much cheaper and less complicated way to erase unwanted memories. According to a new study that appears in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the key to forgetting could lie in simply changing the way we think about the “context” surrounding our memories.
Context is quite a broad thing that can be hard to pin down. Essentially, it refers to everything else that’s going on around a particular event, and, according to the study authors, has a huge influence over how memories are “organized and retrieved” by the brain. For example, if you happen to have a bad experience after drinking too much tequila (itself a pretty effective memory eraser), then it’s likely that the very thought of taking another shot of the stuff will dig up unpleasant memories of that experience.
While you’ll probably only have yourself to blame for getting too drunk and putting yourself in a particular spirit, people who experience more serious distressing events can sometimes develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereby certain contextual cues cause them to relive painful memories. If sufferers can learn to dissociate these memories from their context, however, it may be possible to alleviate their PTSD.
Lead researcher Jeremy Manning explained in a statement that this process is similar to “pushing thoughts of your grandmother’s cooking out of your mind if you don’t want to think about your grandmother at that moment.” Having now identified this as a mechanism for forgetting, he hopes to see his work used as a platform to develop a range of new memory therapies.
The way this works is that the act of recalling stored memories makes them “malleable” once more, as they were during the initial encoding phase, and their re storage can then be blocked by drugs which inhibit the proteins that enable the emotional memory to be re saved.
Until tomorrow: We are our thoughts. We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.