Reminisce. We all do it. In remembering that relaxing vacation to beach, the exhilaration of a passionate, tingly romance, or the wonder of being a new parent, memories become can become romanticized and better than the actual experiences. Conversely, you can remember a fight with friend, the end of a relationship, or an impossible project at work which in hindsight, can become more traumatic than it actually was.
Like the fish tale, each recollection packs a little more punch and grows more charged each time with the process of remembering it.
In his book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer writes that “Our memories are not like fiction. They are fiction.” He says memories are imperfect copies of what actually happened and compares them to “a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph. …[W]e have to misremember something to remember it.”
At the most basic level, a memory is made up of the slight shifts in certain synapses within a specific sequence which incorporate the various elements that make up that memory. Every time you recall it, your brain reconsolidates this process incorporating and filtering it through who you are, what you know, and your mindset at the time of remembering. Hence, memory is an active and ongoing process, and according to Lehrer, “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it.”
The New Science Of Memory
Traditionally, science has viewed memories similar to unchanging words on the pages of a book stored safely on a shelf somewhere accumulating dust. Lehrer tells of experiments done at NYU in 2000 which prove this to be false and which demonstrate that the act of remembering actually changes the brain.
In the experiment, rats were conditioned to associate a shock with a noise. The experimenters let this memory solidify for 45 days until the rats cowered in fear just upon hearing the noise with no accompanying shock. Next, the rats were exposed to the sound, but were injected with a protein inhibitor that interrupted the process of recalling the memory of the shock. If the memory was filed away in some protected, long term storage, when the chemical wore off, the rats should have still been able to remember the shock associated with the noise. However, this didn’t happen. After the rats were blocked from remembering the shock, the original memory didn’t reappear and the rats were no longer fearful of the noise.
This same methodology is being researched as a possible treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and drug addiction.
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