A person in a white coat having the ability to remove memories may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but a new study suggests memories can be deleted by a process of prioritising one memory over another.
According to the research, the brain prioritises memories used frequently over others, which has given rise to the possibility that psychologists could create a process which would delete memories.
The study appeared in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“The brain seems to think that the things we use frequently are the things that are really valuable to us. So it’s trying to keep things clear – to make sure that we can access those important things really easily, and push out of the way those things that are competing or interfering,” lead author Dr Maria Wimber from the University of Birmingham told the BBC.
The study experimented with the idea, which has been known since the mid-1990s, by showing pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein to subjects inside a brain scanner.
Scan results showed how both pictures created distinctive brain patterns, the BBC reported.
The pictures were triggered with the word ‘sand’, but subjects were later asked to only recall one picture with the word.
Brain scans showed that similar patterns occurred while one picture was recalled, and the other faded.
Ms Wimber said the results could have uses in psychology.
“Forgetting is often viewed as a negative thing, but of course, it can be incredibly useful when trying to overcome a negative memory from our past,” she told the BBC.
“So there are opportunities for this to be applied in areas to really help people.”
Memory mechanisms researcher Eva Feredoes from the University of Reading said the reserach could give rise to therapeutic treatments for common brain illnesses.
“Solving this complex ‘competition’ could pave the way for new research into new treatments in diseases that affect memory, such as dementia,” she said.
“Importantly, there are now several techniques to improve brain function. Combined with these results, we have viable mechanisms and brain areas to target with these techniques.”