In the New Yorker, Michael Specter writes generally about the malleability of memory and specifically about Daniela Schiller’s research on disassociating people’s memories from the feelings they have about them. Simply recalling a memory can change it, and Schiller has found evidence that process can be used to remove the feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear associated with certain memories.
Even so, Schiller entered her field at a fortunate moment. After decades of struggle, scientists had begun to tease out the complex molecular interactions that permit us to form, store, and recall many different types of memories. In 2004, the year Schiller received her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience, from Tel Aviv University, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship and joined the laboratory of Elizabeth Phelps, at New York University. Phelps and her colleague Joseph LeDoux are among the nation’s leading investigators of the neural systems involved in learning, emotion, and memory. By coincidence, that was also the year that the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” was released; it explores what happens when two people choose to have all their memories of each other erased. In real life, it’s not possible to pluck a single recollection from our brains without destroying others, and Schiller has no desire to do that. She and a growing number of her colleagues have a more ambitious goal: to find a way to rewrite our darkest memories.
“I want to disentangle painful emotion from the memory it is associated with,” she said. “Then somebody could recall a terrible trauma, like those my father obviously endured, without the terror that makes it so disabling. You would still have the memory, but not the overwhelming fear attached to it. That would be far more exciting than anything that happens in a movie.” Before coming to New York, Schiller had heard — incorrectly, as it turned out — that the idea for “Eternal Sunshine” originated in LeDoux’s lab. It seemed like science fiction and, for the most part, it was. As many neuroscientists were aware, though, the plot also contained more than a hint of truth.