In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey has the memory of his ex girlfriend wiped, it was too painful for him and was holding him back. We all have memories that we wish we could delete though so far we have not invented a device that will let us edit our memory like they can in the movies. Help may be at hand, to a degree at least. New research has found that sleep techniques can help to delete bad memories.
It seems that bad memories are hard to forget. It is easy to forget important things that you do not want to forget, yet those bad memories seem to stay as fresh and vibrant for many years to come. Many people have dreamed about a day when we can simply edit our memories, erase the ones we do not want, there have even been movies where this happens. While the technology to directly access and edit memories has not yet been invented (though it will no doubt at some point), scientists have found that using certain sleep techniques we can achieve a degree of deletion.
Sleep away your bad memories
A recent sudy published in Nature Neuroscience has outlined a method of erasing memories using sleeping techniques. The researchers believe that their technique could be used to treat a range of different disorders, including phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders.
In their study the neuroscientist Katherina Hauner and her colleagues at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, came up with a form of therapy that works while people snooze.
These types of conditions are generally treated with ‘exposure therapy’, which requires patients to intentionally relive their fears over and over. Therepeated exposures, conducted in the safety of a therapist’s consulting room, help the patients to reduce their responses these traumatic cues — implying that their memories are actually being altered. While it is an effective means of treatment it can be very painful and slow.
That is where the new sleep technique comes into play. The study sought to use exposure therapy on sleeping patients. To create the fearful memories, they gave the patients mild electric shocks as they looked at pictures of faces which were linked to a distinct odour, such as lemon or mint. This created a Pavlovian connection between the shocks face and the odour to the point where they would nervously sweat when they saw the face or smelt the odour but before they were shocked.
The fear drops
After this the participants slept while the researchers monitored their brain waves. As the participants entered what is called slow-wave sleep — the sleep stage when memories are replayed and reinforced — they were exposed to the odours, which triggered the memory of the linked face and caused them to sweat. As they repeated this over and over the incidence of sweating reduced, showing that their fear was dropping.
It seems that we are able to overcome bad memories in our sleep through the use of targeted techniques. The scientists are now working on making these techniques able to be used in a therapeutic manner.
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