How Malleable is Our Memory? – Epic Science #26

– You might think that your memories are set in stone, but in reality, they’re set in Play-Doh. So here’s how we often think about memory. Alright, here’s my brain, my brain box, okay. This is where I keep my memories. So that when I see something like Billy the lamb here floating in the air, I form a memory of Billy the lamb, and I stick that inside the brain box. And then when somebody asks me later, “Hey Robert, did you see Billy the lamb floating “in the air?” And I go, “Yeah, I totally saw Billy the lamb.” Let me draw that memory out of the old brain box here. Ha, same as I put it in. And we think that it is the same memory, unflawed, unchanged every time we take it out or put it back into our memory box. Now let’s ignore the fact that you can form a false memory right from the get-go, and just view it with this idea of drawing memories back out of the vault and looking at them, We might think that they’re set in stone, that they’re not going to change like this lamb.

But instead, my memory of Billy the lamb is like something made out of Play-Doh. I atually form the memory here, and it might be an imperfect memory, but it is the memory I have. And let’s add some legs there. And there we go. There’s my memory of Billy the lamb, even though he kind of looks more like a frog. So what do I do? I take this memory, and I stick it in the box. And then I draw it back out again. I’m touching it. I’m adding new fingerprints to it. I’m squishing it around.

I might end up making his neck a little longer, or his legs a little stumpier. The memory changes. This is called reconsolidation, okay. The idea here is that I take an old memory, say a childhood memory of me playing around with a friend of mine. And then I draw that memory out. And when I do, my brain is adding new data to the equation, new emotional data, new facts. Like maybe I don’t get along with that friend anymore. Or maybe that friend’s no longer with us. I’m changing things. I’m learning it in new emotions. And it changes what the memory is, in the same way that I change what the sculpture is. Now this is not a flaw in the brain.

This is an important part of the way we navigate our environment. It’s like a GPS device. You don’t want to have the same map on there for 10 years solid. You want that thing to update. Otherwise you’re going to drive into a lake or into the side of a building. So this is where things get exciting and maybe a little scary. Scientists are working on ways to actually treat traumatic memories, remove harmful memories. It all has to do with the reconsolidation phase. Because in the same way that this memory is susceptible to change when I take it out of the memory box, it’s also susceptible to deletion because the memory is vulnerable during this reconsolidation phase. So I take it out of the box, and if this is a particularly harmful memory to me, then scientists are working on ways so they can zap it out of existence with just the right drug.

So there you have it. As it turns out your memories are far more like this lamb, and less like this one. So what do you think about the future of memory deletion? Would you be game for this? Would you want a doctor to go into your head and eradicate a memory, a harmful memory while you were conjuring it? Or would you rather leave well enough alone? Are those harmful memories also important to who you are? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you. You can leave a comment below. You can leave a video response. And don’t forget to subscribe for even more mind blowing videos..

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