In a landmark 2010 paper in Nature, [Daniela] Schiller (then a postdoc at New York University) and her NYU colleagues, including Joseph E. LeDoux and Elizabeth A. Phelps, published the results of human experiments indicating that memories are reshaped and rewritten every time we recall an event.
(…) In some ways, the potential cultural impact and personal implications of reconsolidation are even more staggering. To put it in an extreme way, if we are all rewriting our memories every time we recall an event, the memory exists not as a file in our brain but only as the most recent rewrite of a scenario. Every memoir is fabricated, and the past is nothing more than our last retelling of it. Archival memory data is mixed with whatever new information helps shape the way we think—and feel—about it. “My conclusion,” says Schiller, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings. Your memory is who you are now.”
In Schiller’s view, then, the secret to preserving a memory doesn’t lie in protein synthesis in the synapses or the shuttling of neural traffic from the hippocampus to the exurbs of the brain. Rather, she believes, memory is best preserved in the form of a story that collects, distills, and fixes both the physical and the emotional details of an event. “The only way to freeze a memory,” she says, “is to put it in a story.” Which ultimately brings us back to her father.
Repairing Bad Memories
Stephen S. Hall