Making and unmaking memories

Wire has a very good article on understanding memory and the potential for softening or eliminating traumatic memories. This is a subject I have written on before and is really fascinating. I think people focus on the “pill to fix bad memories” part of it too much (I admit that is the attention grabbing hook I myself have used).

Once we understand what’s going on we can use a variety of techniques/compounds to regulate our own emotional response as well as what we learn and how quickly we learn. For instance, studies of CISD vs other techniques have found that what after trauma is “compassionate care”– keeping someone warm, comforted, supported, giving them empathy, sympathy. Well, duh. But now we see why it works. It saps a little of the emotional edge that would otherwise be consolidated into the memory.

Knowing that, we can also add other elements. A little alcohol right after trauma (but not regular in the long term) can also take the edge off the memory that is being consolidated (and is also a “well, duh” because “medicinal” use of alcohol has been known for a long time– but has fallen into disrepute because alcoholics will take a swig at the slightest stress). Similarly, a quick hit of morphine after trauma can do the same thing, but in a more powerful way (I’ve seen fascinating research on this). Distraction can get the brain to focus on other things, interfering with the complete traumatic memory consolidation. Transformation is powerful–right after trauma, focus on the positive rather than negative (instead of “I almost died,” think “I’m alive!”) To do the opposite–reinforce learning of good memories–amp up the emotion in the immediate aftermath of the stimulus (high five!).

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