The Wonders of Memory

By: Elizabeth Kershtyn  |  October 24, 2019

Science and Technology 

By: Elizabeth Kershtyn

Have you ever thought to yourself — I wish I could just forget? Do you ever have trouble falling asleep because your brain decides to remind you of that stupid thing you did a long time ago? I think some of us would give up much for a chance to forget past events. However, be careful what you wish for, as it may come true at some point.

Henry Molaison, known as H.M., cracked his skull in an accident during his childhood. As a result, he developed epilepsy (a condition that caused seizures and an inability to control bodily movements). Dr. Scoville, a neurosurgeon working with H.M., decided to remove H.M.’s hippocampus to treat his seizures. The operation seemed to be a success and the seizures virtually disappeared. H.M.’s memory, however, was damaged. He could not remember previous memories or form new ones. Breakfast was forgotten in an instant, and new memories could not be formed. The study of H.M.’s brain redefined what memory is. Findings revealed that in order for memories to be stored, they have to be processed in the hippocampus.

Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist, and expert on human memory, described a legal case she worked on: “Steve Titus was once pulled over by a police officer. Titus’ car resembled the car that was driven by a rapist earlier that evening and Titus kind of resembled that rapist. So, the police took a picture of him and showed it to the victim. She pointed to Titus’ photo and said: ‘That one’s the closest.’ During the trial, the rape victim said: ‘I’m absolutely positive that’s the man.’” Later, an investigative journalist actually found the real rapist. How did that victim go from her assumption to confidence? 

Turns out that the brain does not record the memory as one big video tape, but rather, in fragments, as a constructor. A Northwestern study shows that every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the recall of the event. 

The results of the research show that when you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort, contaminate, or change their memory.  It sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but could it be, that in the near future it would be possible to change or erase certain memories? Is it ethical? Who would benefit from it?

We are our memories. It is the link between past, present, and future. It’s what makes us who we are. If a person loses their memory, is he or she still the same person? Or is it someone else?

 ***      ***