Rewriting "fear" memories

We've posted previously about new drugs on the horizon that could enable bad memories to be selectively "erased." Now, researchers at New York University have developed a non-invasive method to take the pain out of fearful memories. The scientists determined that fear memories can be reactivated and updated with "safe" information. Later, those memories can be recalled without a fear response. The team reported their results in the new issue of the journal Nature. From NYU:
 P Lrg 8 826 1U9Y000Z Salvador-Dali-The-Persistence-Of-Memory-C-1931 The experiment was conducted over three days: the memory was formed in the first day, rewritten on the second day, and tested for fear on the third day. However, to examine how enduring this effect is, a portion of the participants was tested again about a year later. Even after this period of time, the fear memory did not return in those subjects who had extinction during the reconsolidation window. These results suggest that the old fear memory was changed from its original form and that this change persists over time...

"Our research suggests that during the lifetime of a memory there are windows of opportunity where it becomes susceptible to be permanently changed," said (post-doctoral fellow Daniela) Schiller. "By understanding the dynamics of memory we might, in the long run, open new avenues of treatment for disorders that involve abnormal emotional memories."

"NYU Researchers Develop Non-Invasive Technique to Rewrite Fear Memories"


  1. This is what most trauma therapies do, like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which doesn’t really rely on the eye movement thing anymore, but the name has stuck) except it doesn’t “erase” the memory, just lessons the emotional valence. There’s a really interesting article by Gunter and Bodner on memory and PTSD that I don’t have the link to.

  2. Erasing and changing memories. What could possibly go wrong? We won’t remember, will we?

    Fearful memories impart important information for learning and development. Pull one thread, who knows what else might unravel that is important to a psyche, tempting as it may be. So no thanks. Our pain makes us who we are.

    1. Phikus, I’m guessing you don’t suffer from some kind of life-crippling phobia or traumatic memory.

      1. You’re right, I don’t suffer from any life-crippling phobias. Dang it! For someone who does, and can find help in this, great. I was only speaking of my own personal experience and preference.

        But I believe that our fear informs us. We developed it for a reason; for survival. If we take away all fearful memories (which people would do if it were as easy as taking a pill,) then we might keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I find the best solution to fear is to face it (even for a phobic: a little at a time.) If you zap it away like magic, then you have not really found your courage. You have overcome nothing, so the potential to imprint a new phobia still exists in you. Often there is an easier solution than what technology / pharmacology can provide.

        I would venture to say that a person’s irrational fear of dogs does define that person’s experience to a large extent. I’m not saying it is the totality of who they are, but it at least defines how they get through the day in our modern milieu. Collectively, our experiences are all we really are (and I’m talking about identity and personality here.) Who knows what side effects may be caused by tugging at some of the strands that make us us. And I can think of a ton of nefarious uses for such an invention that are enough to make me phobic.

        1. I agree that this being a ‘wash away a bad day’ idea could/would be bad.
          But, as a sufferer of PTSD, I can see the merit in some situations. You said that our fear informs us, for survival – but out of control, fear inhibits just that. My life is impaired by my mind’s inability to work through events, and it definitely impairs the quality of my life. I’ve learned my lessons, and I’m ready to move on but my mind can’t let go. You’re talking survival – so am I.

        2. Yes, the memories of our experiences define us, which Greg Egan addressed in Permutation City. However, if instead of erasing memories we can remember them without directly re-experiencing negative emotions, and only remember that we happened to experiencing negative emotions at the time, I think that would be a very useful tool that could help a boatload of people get on with their lives. You wouldn’t lose the experience, only the overpowering emotional baggage.

          1. There is something that helps one to remember experiences without directly re-experiencing negative emotions. It’s called MDMA and was used extensively as a powerful tool for psychotherapy before being banned.

    2. Isn’t any and all technology a double-edged sword?

      So your irrational fear of dogs, or whatever, is rationalized by how it defines you as a person? Not really.

    3. Talk to someone with severe PTSD sometime.

      The fear response to memories can become pathological, sending the body into full panic mode all the time at the slightest trigger of the memory. The physical and mental stress of feeling that much fear all the time can do really bad things to people. They can’t integrate or learn from the frightening or painful experiences, because their brains constantly react by panicking. Being able to reduce the fear response to those memories would actually help those memories impart their “important information.”

      1. How can any “important information” be imparted if the memory itself is gone? What relevance would such a vague remembrance have? It’s tempting to wish for a miracle drug or procedure to free yourself of your debilitating fear. All I am saying is that one should be very careful of the potential cost in the form of irreversible side effects before making such a devil’s bargain.

        The one thing that is true about tinkering with memory is that one never knows what one would be missing. There are many other methods of helping one to cope with fearful memories (some good, some bad) without complete erasure, so be careful what you wish for. That is all.

      2. Well, as someone with PTSD, I can tell you that remembering the incident is the only way that you’re going to work through it. Just because scientists believe that they’ve erased the memory doesn’t mean that the terror isn’t stored in some corner of the unconscious that we haven’t discovered yet. Imagine having the incessant unknown fear and never being able to understand where it comes from or work through it. If Kafka and Sartre had a child, that’s the story that he’d write.

    4. I have to agree with your statement about stuff being connected. There’s so much that’s tied together, it would seem fool-hardy.

      Antinous, excellent point. If having an irrational fear is crippling, I can’t imagine one where you DON’T KNOW what it’s about. Talk about a definition of hell….

  3. Have they not ever heard of Neuro-linguistic programming? NLP can be very effective at reassociating the subjective and the techniques have been around since the 70s.

  4. This reminds me that many “general” anesthetics work by blocking the emotional response to pain, rather than the sensation of pain itself. It is rather strange to knowingly and consciously experience, because we usually don’t separate the two. But physical pain becomes much less unpleasant without the dread and panic that usually accompany it. And while undergoing surgery, one doesn’t miss the “learning experience” that would come from the onset of pure pain.

    1. Cuvxito, do you have a link for info about those anasthetics? That’s seriously the freakiest drug I’ve ever heard of, even more than the anti-anxiety drugs that don’t keep you from being scared but just make you not care that you are.

  5. And somewhere at the end of this theory, we have the Dollhouse.
    Or Supersoldiers, whose brains are rewritten to forget all traumatic experiences of war and are ready for the next battle.
    It would be of course great if this method could help people with PTSD, but how can you get over something if you can’t remember what is was you wanted to get over?
    How do you know the trigger is really gone? A simple smell can bring you a thousand memories – how do you delete that?

  6. Scientologists claim that this is possible without the pharm. When I was unfortunate enough to attend one of their conventions at age eleven, this technique was our initial introduction to the religion. If you ever hear a scientologist say something like “What are you afraid of?” or “Now tell me that story again,” now you can nod appreciatively before you smack them in the forehead.

  7. Although one common reason people go to therapy is to help cope with daily life, another key purpose of psychotherapy is to help process experiences: NLP, EMDR, and process-experiential therapy (PET) are all ways in which experiences can be transformed. Neurologically, you are decoupling triggers from fear reaction. Yes, psychotherapy – like life experience – can change your brain.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that this article can represent cutting edge research only in a field which forgot that “invasive” procedures aren’t the only ones that are actually effective. Duh.

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