Jim Carrey’s role as shy and morose Joel Barish in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is deeply memorable in the context of his predominantly comedic repertoire of movie roles. And context is everything when it comes to recollection of memories. Though the kind of memory erasing technologies showcased in Eternal Sunshine may be too farfetched to ever become reality, scientists have nonetheless managed to make astounding progress in understanding and manipulating memories.
The most recent of these was the result of a joint study done in the US led by researchers at Dartmouth College, which also included scientists at Princeton, Bard College and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. The researchers focused mainly on the contexts of our memories and how alterations made to these contexts can actually change our memories or even make us forget them. Using a specially designed brain mapping technology called “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI) the scientists constantly tracked thoughts related to memory contexts in the brains of the volunteer participants in the study.
Groups of participants were given two lists of random words to study while images of nature and scenery were shown to them. When they were told to forget the words, their brain scans revealed that participants were actually “flushing out” scenery-related brain activity. In contrast, there was no similar brain activity when they were asked to remember the words instead.
Though a sharp and vivid memory is often considered to be a highly desirable trait, forgetting has its own benefits. The ability to selectively forget certain memories could help in the treatment of disorders like PTSD. There have been several studies in the recent past looking at the issue from different perspectives. For instance, studies identifying neural links between memory and emotional response, the effect of neurochemicals like norepinephrine and PKMzeta have led to pretty incredible breakthroughs. Studies like the one at Dartmouth could help accelerate future research until one day true memory manipulation and modification leaves the field of Sci-Fi and the realm of reality.
The study results are available in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.