The concept of editing and deleting memories you want to alter or get rid of all together has so far been the stuff of science fiction. But a new documentary from PBS' NOVA series looks at contemporary research into how memory works and how memories might be controlled.
For instance traumatic events could be edited so that some of the pain is numbed when recollecting them, or removed entirely. Or phobias could be cured by manipulating certain memories with drugs or other treatments.
"For much of human history, memory has been seen as a tape recorder that faithfully registers information and replays it intact," filmmakers say. "But now, researchers are discovering that memory is far more malleable, always being written and rewritten, not just by us but by others. We are discovering the precise mechanisms that can explain and even control our memories. The question is—are we ready?"
Featured in the documentary is Jake Hausler a 12-year-old boy who is able to remember every single thing that happened to him since he was 8 years-old. The condition is known as hyperthymesia or highly superior autobiographical memory and means his mind is unable to focus on what is important and what isn't.
“Forgetting is probably one of the most important things that brains will do,” says André Fenton a neuroscientist working on a technique to delete painful memories. “We understand only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to human memory.”
The film also meets clinical psychologist Merel Kindt who uses medication to remove the negative associations with memories and has used it to treat people with arachnophobia.
Also in the documentary is the cutting edge science of optogenics which lets scientists map certain memories in genetically modified rats and then manipulate the memories with lasers. It's early stages but sometime in the future a version of this technique could be applied to humans too.