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Memories As Chemicals

Discover magazine has a fascinating article in the July/August 2009 issue called “Out of the Past” by Kathleen McGowan, discussing the changes in memory study.  I’d link it here, but it’s not up on the Discover site yet (if it ever will be).

First, I’ll preface this by reminding everyone that we’re made up of an entirely different set of molecules than we were composed of as babies.  This begs the question, “Who exactly are we, if our bodies have had multiple turnovers?”  Does this reduce us to a pile of elements, molecules, chemicals, and reactions between them?

It’s something to think about anyway.

Now we get to memory.  What if I were to tell you that memory is simply made up of chemicals doing their thing?

McGowan begins with an example of someone trying to alter her memory.  Rita Magil was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a vicious car accident.  She wished to get rid of the memories, or at least lessen them, so they wouldn’t broadside her during the day (no pun intended).  “‘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.”

“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.”

This experiment came from another finding in neuroscience (by Karim Nader of McGill): “that we alter our memories just by remembering them.”  [Just that finding alone makes you wonder about all those memoirs out there, doesn’t it?  How many times has the author had to revisit certain memories, and if those memories have been altered each time, how accurate are they coming out on the page?]

“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.’”

Nader says, “For a hundred years, people thought memory was wired into the brain.  Instead, we find it can be rewired–you can add false information to it, make it stronger, make it weaker, and possibly even make it disappear.”

McGowan goes on to explain the biology behind episodic memory, which, very simply put, is a series of chemical reactions.  It was thought, at one time, that all those processes took time, and once allowed to “sit” for a while, they would become solid, like concrete.  The problem is, though, that most memory is faulty and incorrect.  “Instead of being a perfect movie of the past, psychologists found, memory is more like a shifting collage, a narrative spun out of scraps and constructed anew whenever recollection takes place.”

Scientists are now working on ridding the brain of specific memories, eradicating them completely.  And of course, Hollywood has had its share of movies, taking a look at what that would look like–Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Total Recall, to name a few.

All this gives a whole new perspective to what we believe is us.

It gives you pause (doesn’t it?) to think that we might be driven by chemical impulses…and that’s it?  It’s astounding to me.

[Post image: Head X-ray by kilokilo at stock.xchng]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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