Everyone has a few memories they’d like to forget, whether it’s the loss of a loved one or a past traumatic event. No matter what the memory, it becomes part of who you are, and has the potential to influence the decisions you make.
But what if we could alter bad memories or even erase them altogether? There have been some breakthrough studies in the past year that suggest that’s possible.
How are memories made?
Before problems such as memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder can be addressed, scientists needed to understand how memories become encoded in the brain. Memory encoding is a biological phenomenon connected with all our senses. As an event unfolds, for instance, the brain takes note of a person’s physical features, the sound of their voice, maybe the touch of their hand. These perceptions combine to form a cohesive experience. To create a proper memory, however, you must first be paying attention, which is why so many of our routine experiences aren’t firmly committed to memory, say, your commute to work. Scientists aren’t sure whether the brain stores information at the input stage or only after the brain identifies the stimuli as important, but we do know that how much one pays attention determines how the memory is remembered.
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What is the difference between short and long term memory?
Once an experience is stored in the brain, it is categorized into one of three categories: sensory stage, short-term memory, and long-term memory. These categories help the brain organize memories by their importance. Short-term memory is treated as a lower priority and has a very limited capacity; usually seven items for about 20 or 30 seconds at a time, but there are mental exercises that can be done to help increase this capacity. Gradually, some short-term memories rise to become long-term memories. In order for this to happen, the short-term memory must go through a process known as consolidation. During consolidation, the memory is recalled repeatedly and that eventually triggers chemical and physical changes in the brain which permanently encode the recollection for long-term access. (Sadly, this is why cramming before a test doesn’t help much.) In general when we think of memory, we are referring to long-term memories that have had a lasting impression in our lives. But before reaching that status, all memories must cycle through the sensory and short-term memory phases.
How can emotional memories be erased?
According to new research from Uppsala University, if a traumatic memory is recently formed, it may be possible to prevent it from becoming a long-term memory. During consolidation, a memory is malleable for a small time before it becomes a permanent long-term memory. Researchers now believe that during this period of malleability, fearful memories can be substantially modified into neutral memories.