Researchers Find Way to Erase Bad Memories

Dennis Faas's picture

A recent study by Swedish researchers has led to claims that it is possible to erase emotional memories from the human brain. It's an idea that appears to come straight from the 2004 movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

The startling assertion is related to a new theory that suggests memories (predominantly those associated with fear) can be turned into benign memories and remain that way for a lifetime.

Emotions Altered Before Becoming Long-Term Memory

Scientists agree that a long-term memory is formed when individuals learn new information through the process of consolidation.

The process is based on the formation of proteins in the brain: When we recall an event, the memory becomes unstable for a small window of time.

After a second consolidation process begins, the memory is re-stabilized and certain emotions are then tethered to the mental image.

In other words, we don't remember the original moment a memory was made, but rather only the last time we remembered the moment and the emotions that come with it.

The Swedish researchers now believe the emotion of fear that is linked to a memory can be destabilized by interrupting the initial reconsolidation process that occurs shortly after remembrance. (Source:

Fear Erased Through Repetitive Exposure

To prove their theory, researchers showed participants neutral images (picturesque landscapes, for example) but administered an electric shock after the initial viewing, creating a "fear memory" by associating an image with physical pain.

The next day participants were divided into two groups. The first group was shown the image once to reactivate the fear memory, and then repeatedly thereafter to disrupt the memory consolidation process.

The second group was also shown the image once to reactivate the fear memory, but not shown the image again until a six-hour delay had elapsed.

Surprisingly, the fear associated with the image disappeared from the first group but remained with the second group.

The researchers say this proves it is possible to remove a fearful memory from the brain if the reconsolidation process is interrupted. (Source:

Many other scientists are already looking forward to the benefits of erasing fearful memories. These range from conquering small-scale phobias (such as the fear of snakes or clowns) to large-scale disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning home from war).

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