Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Down Memory and Forgetting Lane

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Brain
Edward Hessler

We didn’t realize we were making memories. We just knew we were having fun.”--Winnie the Pooh

Can we really trust our memories? How accurate are they?  The day I wrote this, if asked, I'd have to say "not so much." I was talking with a friend and during our telephone conversation, I checked my reporting about a recent event. It was not right. I'd conflated two closely related events. The only good thing was that I was able to correct my mistake.

The BBC has a short video (~ 4 minutes) about memory entitled "Why Your First Memory Is Probably Wrong."

Take a look.

And as long as we are here, let's take a brief look at forgetting, an area of scientific research which may surprise you. It did me.

An Outlook essay on the brain in Nature by Lauren Gravitz describes a new body of research which has found "that the loss of memories is not a passive process. Rather, forgetting seems to be an active mechanism that is constantly at work in the brain." Memory appears to require forgetting..

Gravitz quotes Michael Anderson, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK. "'Every species that has a memory forgets. Full stop, without exception. It doesn't matter how simple the organism is: if they acquire lessons of experience, the lessons can be lost. In light of that, I find it absolutely stunning that neurobiology has treated forgetting as an afterthought."

There are different forms of memory.  The one best understood, according to Gravitz, is 'autobiographical memory--those of events experience personally." The process is described in her essay. In 2012, neuroscientist Ron Davis (Scripps Research Institute) was studying memory formation in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) found evidence for forgetting, active forgetting. Davis's work is intricate and if you are interested, Gravitz provides a very nice thumbnail of this painstaking work.  Forgetting was then found in rats and mice.

This has led "researchers to think that the human brain might operate in a similar way. It is adaptive, that is generalities are favored over details so that what was learned can be used "in novel situations." Again, if you are interested Gravitz describes people with what can be called autobiographical memory which results in "an increased tendency for obsessiveness. Still others may have deficient autobiographical memories who, "not weighed down by the nitty-gritty, are good at solving problems. Active forgetting in humans is being explored, according to Gravitz's essay, through various magnetic-resonance imaging and the study of neurotransmitters.  It is suspected/hoped that such work will lead to "improving treatments for anxiety, PTSD and even Alzheimer's disease."

BTW, Gravitz discusses the neurobiology of memory formation. For me, it provided information on why our memories are often so shadowy. It has to do with the "strength" of the neural network of a memory.

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