Hopefully anyone reading this is not in the habit of taking notes and using tattoos to remember their short term encounters. This sounds like the premise of a movie, because it is. Whereas Nolan took care of portraying the problems of Memory loss to anyone watching, it is now upto us to delve deeper into sciences behind it.
To define memory is hard. Is it an emotion? Is it a process? Is it a feature? Well the most widely accepted definition is that a memory is a facility that our brains provide to store information for long term or short term use by encoding and storing with the aid of neurons in the brain for retrieval when the need arises. All our abilities to talk, learn languages, remember people, develop relationships would all be in shambles if it weren’t for our ability to store Memories.
Memory is classified into three based on our understanding so far: Sensory memory associated with the senses, Short term memory for our short term actions or daily actions and Long term memory for our long term remembrance. To define each of these better, Sensory memory is associated with sensory information processing. What we see, taste, hear, and feel all comes under sensory memory. Information that needs to be retained for short durations of time falls under Short term memory. Information normally stored under short term memory doesn’t need to be recalled. The exception to this is when something that was initially in the short term memory is moved into the long term memory. Long term memory is where all the memories that we want to keep for our life, or at least for very long time, go to. This type of memories are further classified into Implicit and Explicit memories. The former deals with life skills such as how to read, write and so on whereas the latter is reserved for the emotional events in our life.
Common memory related disorders
We have all heard about people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after surviving a harrowing accident or being in a terrorist situation. It doesn’t have to even that grave a situation to trigger PTSD. Any memory that may seem insignificant to us, may cause trauma to someone else leading to PTSD. Symptoms associated with PTSD are reported to have lasted for months or even years at end and end up affecting the normal daily behaviour of the affected person. People at highest risk of suffering from PTSD are natural disaster survivors, former concentration camp occupants, violent crime survivors and war veterans. This gives us an opportunity to take a look at another common trauma related condition called Survivor’s guilt. This is experience by people who regrettably turn out to be the sole survivor of a life threatening event. The fact that only he or she survived while everyone else who were in the same dire situation as him perished, usually leads to a build-up of guilt. In both these cases, the affected person will become emotionally scarred, will became more hard to approach and will tend to be a recluse himself. One thing leads to another and the inability to cope with the trauma will eventually lead to alcohol and drug abuse. Aggressive behaviour, self destructing habit and even suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among patients suffering from PTSD. All these are real dangers posed to human life and inspite of medical advances we haven’t been fully able to tackle this.
What is the answer?
For several decades, scientists have been hard at work studying the workings of the brain and how memories are stored and how we can potentially erase them. Because, let’s face it , the best way to deal with a person suffering from PTSD or other related conditions is to take away the trauma inducing memory altogether. This suggestion has taken a lot of flair from human rights activists and other NGOs. But at the moment other than counselling, it is the only alternative we have. Early attempts at memory erasing included Drug Induced Amnesia, Selective Suppression Techniques, Hypnosis and Emotional Freedom. Although the credibility of the last two are arguable, they are still considered as a placebo.
In clinical trials the progress has been grim. But the bright side is that we are having better luck with mice. Exposing mice to Xenon gas has proven to neutralise negative memories. Sadly, we do not have enough data on this yet to confidently go ahead with human trials. The technique works by targeting the concerned memory cells with the gas and blocking it from making any connections that are involved in the process of memory recollection. This is still a method in development, although if successful you could very soon be walking around with a xenon gas inhaler to help you deal with any bad memories you might encounter.
Looking at the alternative, counselling it has been proven effective in some cases but the success rate isn’t as high as one would like. The correct term for the technique is Psychotherapy. The person under stress is made to revisit the traumatic experience under the guide of a therapist. This might take away the fear of the memory or the person might be able to find something new that he missed the first time. Although this was initially used as an investigative method to question eye witnesses of a crime, it was found out that people felt much better after the process. These studies and procedures in the future can help curing or alleviating the condition of patients suffering PTSD or even from diseases like Alzheimer’s.
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