Memories move through stages when they are formed: they are ‘encoded’ or some other process of being prepared (perhaps working memory), they are held in an early stage (short term memory), changes occur in synapses in both the hippocampus and cortex forming a somewhat stable memory from minutes to hours later (synaptic consolidation), the memories are processed so that they are less dependent on hippocampus and more on the cortex from days to years after (system consolidation). Consolidated memories are fairly stable – but- when they are recalled into consciousness, they can be modified. This seems to be the main way in which memories are re-consolidated (or changed) over time. Passing a memory through consciousness means it is re-stored, either unchanged or updated depending on circumstances. Much of sleep is busy with the consolidation and re-consolidation of memories. This is a simplified outline of the current science on memory and it is important to realize that more is unknown than known.

An interesting item in BPS research digest (here) looks at experiments with a treatment for traumatic memories, EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

A controversial treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder involves the traumatised person holding a painful memory in mind while simultaneously following with their eyes the horizontal movements of their therapist’s finger… Raymond Gunter and Glen Bodner have tested three possible explanations…

(first) relative to staring straight ahead, eye-movements increased arousal levels. (undermining) the idea that eye movements activate an innate investigatory reflex that inhibits fear and provokes relaxation.

A second experiment showed that both horizontal and vertical eye movements reduced the vividness and emotionality of the students’ memories. (undermining) the idea that horizontal eye movements aid interhemispheric communication, thus allowing the more rational left hemisphere to process the right hemisphere’s traumatic memories.

(third) experiment showed that the students’ memories became less vivid and emotional, not only when they performed concurrent horizontal eye movements, but also if they instead performed a simultaneous simple hearing task. This undermines the idea that EMDR works specifically by taxing the so-called “visuo-spatial sketch-pad” of working memory. It suggests instead that the mechanism underlying EMDR is a more general effect based on taxing the big boss of short-term memory – the central executive.

…performing a concurrent task, be it eye movements or some other distraction, while also recalling a painful memory, allows a person to be exposed to that memory, without having the mental resources available to get too upset by it. Over time, this process acts like a form of gentle exposure to the memory, as the person learns that they can, after all, cope with their past.

This seems a clear case of a memory being forced to change during re-consolidation – by passing through consciousness under conditions that modify the memory.

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