New Understanding of Memory

Amanda S. Barusch (2011): New Understanding of Memory Poses Challenges for Retrospective Research, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 54:8, 751-754

New Understanding of Memory Poses
Challenges for Retrospective Research


Much of gerontological research rests on the shifting sands of memory. Consider how often we rely on self report, not just to learn what happened last week, but to understand events that happened long ago. Too often our understanding of memory is based on an outdated conception.

Remember those films we saw in grade school, where men in white coats stimulated part of someone’s brain and the person experienced a memory? I could be making this up or remembering a dream. Still, I have long understood, in part because of those films/dreams, that all the events of my life, no matter how trivial, were etched somewhere in the soft tissue of my brain. The problem with age, I was taught, was not that memories disappear, but that they become difficult to retrieve. Today when my father suddenly mentions a memory from long ago I wonder what triggered the recollection but I seldom question the validity of the memory.

Remember “False Memory Syndrome”? It changed our conception of memory. In the late 1980s adults began to “recover” traumatic memories of their childhood, often while in therapy. One of the most famous cases made its way to Time magazine (Carlson, 1990). George Franklin was convicted of murder in 1990 on the basis of his daughter’s recovered memories of witnessing the event as a child in 1969. Franklin served almost seven years in prison before the conviction was overturned by an appeals court (Franklin v. Terr, 2000). Many other families experienced suffering and conflict as the result of recovered memories that were later proved false. Most social workers now understand that people can be induced to develop memories through suggestive questions, and practice has been adjusted accordingly (False Memory Syndrome Foundation, 2011).

But this is only part of the story. Not only can memory be constructed by outside influences, but there is good evidence that our recollections change in the course of remembering. Neuroscientists seeking treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) learned that propranolol (a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure) blocked physiological reactions to traumatic memories. Further, when PTSD sufferers were forced to remember the traumatic events while under the influence of propranolol, their memories changed—permanently losing their capacity to evoke terror (McGowan, 2010). This pointed the way to a new treatment (and possibly a new prevention) for PTSD.

It also triggered a wave of research that has changed the way we conceive of memory. In 2000 Karim Nader, a relative newcomer to the field, published a controversial series of studies that contradicted the established model of memory. Put simply, he modified stimulus-response memories in rats. Nader interpreted his findings by arguing that reactivating a memory destabilizes it, leaving it vulnerable to change through a process he called “reconsolidation.” Neuroscientists were initially skeptical but in the subsequent decade Nader’s findings were duplicated time and again. Today the notion that memories are changed by the process of remembering or reconsolidation is widely accepted among neuroscientists (McGowan, 2010). Rather than being etched in stone, our memories are more like lines in the sand, redrawn and shifted in the process of recollection.

Personal experiences may be illustrative. Try comparing childhood memories with a parent or sibling. Our vivid recollections of key events are sometimes fundamentally different. This can be embarrassing. I once found myself eagerly recounting a tale from childhood when my mother deflated me by explaining that I hadn’t been born when the story took place. Then why did I remember the events so clearly? Memory and imagination may be inextricably linked to the extent that we sometimes can’t tell the difference between things we experience and those we imagine, hear about, or watch. We know this in our personal lives. Why do we forget it in our research?

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