(POPSCI) — Roadside bombs, childhood abuse, car accidents—they form memories that can shape (and damage) us for a lifetime. Now, a handful of studies have shown that we’re on the verge of erasing and even rewriting memories. The hope is that this research will lead to medical treatments, especially for addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Researchers have known for decades that memories are unreliable. They’re particularly adjustable when actively recalled because at that point they’re pulled out of a stable molecular state. Last spring, scientists published a study performed at the University of Washington in which adult volunteers completed a survey about their eating and drinking habits before age 16. A week later, they were given personalized analyses of their answers that stated—falsely—that they had gotten sick from rum or vodka as a teen.
One in five not only didn’t notice the lie, but also recalled false memories about it and rated that beverage as less desirable than they had before. Studies like these point to possible treatments for mental health problems. Both PTSD and addiction disorders hinge on memories that can trigger problematic behaviors, such as crippling fear caused by loud noises or cravings brought about by the sight of drug paraphernalia.
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