Scientists have learned how to turn memories on and off with the flip of a switch. And while most of us, as we get older, want to remember more (for instance, people’s names), some people want to FORGET some of the traumatic events they’ve witnessed.
Scientists are able to turn memories on and off due to recent advances in their understanding of the brain area known as the hippocampus and its role in learning. Using an electronic system that duplicates the neural signals associated with memory, they can replicate the brain function in rats associated with long-term learned behavior, even when the rats they are working with have been drugged to forget.
Biomedical engineer Theodore Berger says, "Flip the switch on, and the rats remember. Flip it off, and the rats forget." Next, they’ll try it with humans.
Most memory research has been done in an effort to find a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, but some people want to FORGET instead of remember, such as soldiers who have gone through traumatic events. It turns out that one of the keys to this is to STAY AWAKE afterwards.
A recent study by sleep researchers suggests that a person’s emotional response after witnessing an unsettling picture or traumatic event is greatly reduced if the person stays awake afterward, and that sleep strongly "protects" the negative emotional response. Further, if the unsettling picture is viewed again or a flashback memory occurs, it will be just as upsetting as the first time for those who have slept after viewing compared to those who have not.
This could be especially important for people who are in situations such as car crashes where they are taken straight to the hospital. Instead of being coaxed (or drugged) into a soothing sleep, they should be kept awake for a time so they’ll be more likely to forget the trauma of what happened to them, and thus less likely to develop PTSD.
Also, people who survive a painful event should express their feelings soon after so the memory isn’t "sealed over" and repressed, which could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Each year, more than 30,000 people are trained in this technique, and after the September 11 attacks (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show), 2,000 facilitators came to New York City to help.
On the Wired website, Jonah Lehrer writes: "In the past decade, scientists have come to realize that our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all."
But most of us are trying to remember things like where we put our keys, and names are a special problem. Sometimes it’s because we don’t recognize them, but more often, even when they look familiar, we just can’t think of their name. Sometimes, after being introduced to someone, we forget their name within seconds. No, you’re not becoming senile: it’s not necessarily your brain’s ability that determines how well you can remember names, but rather your level of interest.
Psychologist Richard Harris says, Just because someone can’t remember names doesn’t mean they have a bad memory. Almost everybody has a very good memory for something." The more interest you show in a topic, the more likely it will imprint itself on your brain. If it is a topic you enjoy, then it will not seem like you are using your memory. A good strategy is to use the person’s name while you talk to them–although the best strategy is simply to show more interest in the people you meet.