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Mindful : February 2017
found, can enable us to remember something that didn’t make it into our brain’s long-term memory at the moment we experienced it. That is, the future seems to change our ability to remember past events long after the window for remembering or forgetting had, scientists thought, slammed shut. That discovery is only the latest challenge to the notion that memory is like a high-fidelity recording of our lives, a physical trace etched into our neurons like the grooves on a vinyl record. Over the last few years, neuroscientists and psychologists have learned that, in fact, memories are not only fallible (as we have all experienced; who played the bad guy in Speed?), they also can be manipulated. True or False? According to lab studies, false memories can be implanted in some people (about one-third to one-half of us) simply by having them think about true experiences, introducing a false one, and asking them to think long and hard about each. And contrary to the old view that when memories are retrieved they are returned to long-term storage exactly as they were, it turns out they can be changed every time we access them: Reliving an experience alters our memory of it. That can have embarrassing consequences. Congressman Paul Ryan, for instance, told a radio interviewer in 2012 that he had run a marathon in just under three hours. Although his actual time was 4:01, he probably wasn’t con- sciously lying (the fib was far too easy to catch) but was tripped up by repeatedly thinking about his time (so close to a number that began with a three) and unwittingly altering the memory. A Second Chance In the latest twist on memory, scientists have discovered that events that occur long after an original event can affect whether we recall a past event at all. You might expect an experi- ence to have only one shot at being encoded into memory by triggering one of the trio of mental reactions I described above: It either does or it doesn’t pull such a trigger at the moment the experience occurs. But consider for a moment the mention of a late-day meeting with the intern. It might go in one ear of his wife and out the other, seemingly forgotten—until the intern’s name pops up on a possibly flirty text you happen to glimpse. Or, to use another example, a stranger brushes past you at the bar, something you barely notice and therefore do not encode into a fully formed memory. But it takes on new meaning when you discover your phone has gone missing. In both cases the merest wisp of a memory— it was barely encoded—becomes as vivid as a nightmare from which you just awakened. “New information can strengthen previously weak memories, making it more likely that an experi- ence is retained,” explains psychologist Eliza- beth Kensinger of Boston College. “The future can make an experience more likely to become encoded in memory.” One experiment that showed this effect asked subjects to look at images of animals (chimp, eagle, crab, and more) and tools (anvil, ham- mer, shears...). Five minutes later, they looked at different animals and tools, this time receiv- ing a mild electric shock when anything from one category (but not the other) appeared. The volunteers remembered items belonging to the category associated with the zap, not surprising since the items stirred an emotional reaction (fear or aversion, as in, “uh oh, there’s a picture of a chimp and here comes a zap”). But here’s the funny thing, according to psychologist Joseph Dunsmoor of New York University and his colleagues: After being shown the second set of images and given the shocks that accompanied those in a certain category—let’s say it was the tools—the par- ticipants, tested 6 and 24 hours later, remem- bered the tools in the first group better than they had initially. In other words, while tools had seemed unimportant at the moment when a perception first had a chance to become encoded as a memory, once they received a zap, it suddenly caused the memory to be encoded on the second try, so to speak, and therefore to be retrievable. The journal Nature, which published the study in 2015, called this phenomenon “ret- roactive memor y enhancement,” and said it suggests that people “can remember initially inconsequential information following a rele- vant later experience.” Contrary to the long- standing belief that the go-or-no-go decision (remember or forget) can’t be revisited, many of our experiences seem to be stored in a sort of limbo, poised to move into long-term storage and consciousness if later events warrant. That nonchalant mention of an intern, that barely noticed brush with a stranger at a bar... in the bright light of hindsight, they seem more RESEARCH When Memory Lies The research cited here posits the existence of ac- curate memories that come to light when triggered by subsequent, and somehow related, events. The big- gest news about how malleable memory can be emerged in the early ’80s, when a group of therapeu- tic practices that fall under the cate- gory of Recovered Memory Therapy gained popularity. They use hypnosis, sedatives, and dialogue to un- cover “repressed memories,” usually of sexual abuse or satanic ritual. Research cited in a series of successful law- suits in the early ’90s discredited these techniques. Professional standards now proscribe their use, and the False Memory Syn- drome Foundation exists to support people whose lives are potentially disrupted by the planting of false, traumatic memo- ries in therapeutic settings. 20 mindful February 2017 brain science