Stephen Baker

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A new job for editors: Rewriting memories

August 26, 2009News

Practically every day I dwell on the nature of memory. It was only a few months ago that I learned that every memory we have is simply the memory of the latest version of that memory, and that the chain of those memories can involve massive distortion. That's one reason why eye-witnesses who have read about the crime in the paper or seen it on TV are notoriously unreliable on the stand. Their latest version of the memory is fed by the news story.

Now I read a story in Nature that describes how scientists are tinkering with our memories. Here's how. In the case of a patient who had suffered a traumatic auto accident, they give her a drug to shut down the amygdala, which processes emotional memories. Then they play her a recreation of the crash. This way, according to the article, a cool factual version of the memory replaces the emotionally-laden one.

This is getting close to the 2004 movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My prediction is that increasingly we are going to manage our human memories, optimizing them for happiness, while relying on digital records for the factual stuff. If you doubt it, pick up Total Recall, by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. I'll be writing more about the book shortly.

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