The instability of memory: how your brain edits your recollections

Memory is an essential part of our existence. Who we are, what we know and what we think can all be derived from our ability to remember. How reliable, though, are our memories?

study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that the answer is “not nearly as much as we once thought”.

The researchers, based at Chicago’s Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, conducted a test in which they showed participants an image of an object placed in front of a background. They were then shown a different background and asked to move the object to the same location as before.

In each case in the second exercise, the participants failed to place tho object correctly. They were then asked to return to the first background and place the object in its original spot. When faced with the choice, all selected the second, incorrect location. The participants’ memories had, essentially, been “edited”.

It is now increasingly being established that our memories are susceptible to modification. Indeed, recent research has shown that we rewrite memories each time we recall them. In some cases, recollections can even be entirely fabricated.

Jee Hyun Kim from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne said this study adds a new dimension to our understanding of memory.

“We knew from animal studies that memories update and incorporate new information, to the extent of having false memories,” she said.

“However, the memories formed were based on emotionally significant events.”

The experiment, Dr Kim noted, proved that memory adaptation was not limited to traumatic events.

“Even benign episodes can ‘update’ to incorporate new information,” she said.

Kristyn Bates, from the University of Western Australia, agreed on the significance of the study.

“Traditionally, we have learned much about brain function from people who suffer brain injuries and disease by relating their symptoms and deficits to the [affected] sites in the brain,” she said.

“But now with brain imaging techniques, we can study these processes in living, healthy volunteers.”

To better understand the neurological side to this process, the researchers directed participants to complete the test within an MRI scanner.

They found the memory-rewriting process was a result of activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain affected in dementia cases.

The tests also helped show how memory was capable of being manipulated. Dr Kim said children “are highly susceptible to external suggestions”, as are hypnosis patients.

So why are our memories so susceptible to change? The authors of the study suggest this process is a means of enabling our brains to adapt to changing environments. By inserting new data into old recollections, our memories retain relevance to our current situation.

Some types of memories may be more flexible than others. Semantic memories — the recollections that comprise our conceptual understandings — are relatively stable, but episodic and experiential memories can be much more unreliable.

Fiona Kumfor, research officer at Neuroscience Research Australia, said we should not automatically dismiss memories as untrustworthy. The results of the study “highlight some of the shortcomings of our memories”, she said, but they “shouldn’t make us doubt the truth” of what we recall.

In some cases the recollection process can have the opposite effect.

“Each time you reminisce about a past event, that memory will strengthen and be reinforced,” she said.

Image2: Spot the difference.

Rurouni Kenshin 2014 Behind the Scenes
Volume 9 Chapter 70: Soujiro the Tenken


Our seventh chapbook finalist is DANEZ SMITH, for his manuscript, bare & plenty. Check out and share a poem from the manuscript, (first published in Bloom Literary Journal) above!

Danez Smith is a proud Cave Canem Fellow, 2-time Pushcart Nominee, Best New Poets Nominee & avid twerker from St. Paul, MN. Danez, as a poet, performer & playwright, has taken his work across the country to schools, community centers, poetry venues, and theatres across the country, as well as aboard in places like the UK, Mexico, Switzerland, and Panama, where he co-founded a bilingual education program with the US Embassy. Danez came into writing through poetry slams, and placed 6th in the world at the 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam and is the 2013 Rustbelt Midwest Regional Slam Champion. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Gertrude, decomP, The Cortland Review, Anti-, Southern Indiana Review, PANK as well as other journals and anthologies. He is an assistant editor for Muzzle Magazine and edits the Line Breaks Chapbook Series for First Wave. He thinks you look good today, now werk!

Continue to share your heart with people even if it has been broken.
Amy Poehler, Harvard Speech (via psych-facts)
Remember how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. You are not where you want to be, but neither are you where you used to be.
Rick Warren (via remembertosmileyou)


Rapier Sword

  • Dated: circa 1620 — 1630; hilt, circa 1640; pommel, circa 1550
  • Culture: European
  • Place of Origin: Western Europe
  • Medium: steel, wire
  • Measurements: ovarall length, 138cm. Blade length, 115cm. Hilt length, 23.5cm. Wuillons width 24.4cm

The sword features a fig-shaped pommel, vertically fluted with eight panels, the whole cut into a reeded pattern. It has a large button, which shows clearly that the pommel has been removed and the hilt dismounted in recent times.

The pommel does not belong to the rest of the hilt. The spirally-fluted grip is bound with twisted wire and finished with plain steel collars at top and bottom. These may be modern.

The guards, all of flat oval section, consist of a knuckle-guard and two guard-rings (the upper one joined to the knuckle-guard are flattened, widened and turned over in strong scrolls). The back of the hilt is a mirror-image of the front.

The sword has a long narrow blade of strong diamond section, the faces hollowed; there is a neat shoulder at the point where the blade enters the hilt between the shells. The mid-rib of the blade is flattened below the shoulder for 2.0 cm (3/4”).

Source: Images & Text © Copyright 2000-2013, The Fitzwilliam Museum