The science behind memory alteration

BY Wendy Walker

1st Jan 2015 Life

The science behind memory alteration

Wendy Walker is the author of the psychological thriller All Is Not Forgotten telling the story of a teenage victim of a brutal attack whose parents decide to have her memories wiped with experimental treatment. Wendy talks to us about the research behind memory therapy and how it inspired her latest book. 

As a writer, I’m always looking for real life events that would make a good story. Back in 2010, I came across an article in The New York Times about the use of morphine to treat PTSD.


The article reported findings from PTSD studies conducted on soldiers returning from war. They found that soldiers who had been given high doses of morphine right after an incident in the field had lower rates of PTSD than those who did not get the morphine. They concluded that the morphine had altered the emotional memory of the attack to make it less intense.

This led to a call for more research into using memory alteration (called reconsolidation) to treat and prevent PTSD after a trauma—even in civilian life, and even for victims of violent crimes. At the time, I thought this would make for a fascinating novel examining the possible dilemma between erasing the memory of a crime and the ability to seek justice. When I finally decided to write a psychological thriller, this issue was not only still relevant, it had exploded!

I wrote All Is Not Forgotten in the spring of 2015, and by that time the research into memory reconsolidation had advanced significantly. At the core of this research is the finding that memories are like files on a computer—they can be recalled and then altered, or perhaps even erased entirely.


This is because each piece of a memory—sight, sound, emotion, relationships, music, temperature, physical sensations and pain, etc., are all held in the parts of the brain that process those pieces of an event.

To recall a memory, the neurons of the brain have to communicate with each other through synapses (with the use of chemicals) to bring together all of the components of that event into a memory. But the brain likes to update information. It’s useful to our survival.

Image via Shutterstock 

So over time, the brain might replace bits and pieces of the memory while it’s being recalled to adjust for the current situation the person is in, or perhaps to alleviate an unpleasant emotion attached to that memory, like guilt or regret. The memory then goes back into storage with that permanent alteration. This is why family members and old friends often remember the same event with slightly different details.

But if the brain can change or reconsolidate a memory, why can’t we do it as well?



"Theoretically, a victim could remember the event but not have any emotional reaction"



Currently, a range of PTSD therapies are being developed which utilise this new understanding about how memory works. Within the first few hours after an event, drugs can be administered to try to block the memory entirely.

By interrupting the stabilisation process, which turns a short-term memory into a long-term memory, the short-term memory can (possibly) be erased. Alternatively, pain medication like morphine or Propofol can be administered so the emotional attachment to the memory is lessened. Theoretically, a victim could remember the event but not have any emotional reaction.

For victims whose traumas have already been stabilised into long-term memory, the same treatments are given in an attempt to reconsolidate that memory either factually, or by lessening the emotional attachment. As the person recalls the painful memory, the drug or other method is used so that the memory becomes altered before it is re-filed—just like changing a computer file before hitting the save button.

Image via Shutterstock

As of this writing, specific long-term memories cannot be “zapped” entirely and with precision. However, scientists know what chemicals are required for the neurons to communicate, so they believe it may be possible to recall a memory, then interrupt the communication between the neurons so that memory cannot be refilled at all. Targeting and “zapping” a memory entirely may very well be possible one day given all that they know about memory storage.

Personally, I believe that the reconsolidation therapies being done to lessen the emotional impact of trauma memories is an amazing tool which is alleviating a great deal of suffering from PTSD.

Like many areas of science, there can be boundaries within which everyone is comfortable, and then grey areas where controversy begins to arise. I think applying any type of reconsolidation where a victim of crime may be compromised in seeking justice will create a personal dilemma for that victim—and a choice for that victim to make.



"What are we if not the culmination of all of our experiences, held in our memories?"



Beyond that—the possibility of targeting painful memories and erasing the facts of those memories (and not just the emotional response) will likely raise broader societal questions about what it means to be human. What are we if not the culmination of all of our experiences, held in our memories? What is left if we remove the “bad” ones?

We'll have to wait and see as science marches on!


All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker is published by HQ 

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