7 No. 1
science and art of memory
of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves
to anything around them.
Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral
in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's
probably going to happen again.
Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts
My Return to the Chair
Identity and academic sacred
space in Middle Eastern and South Asian studies
Gordon D. Newby, Professor and Chair, Middle Eastern and South
for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier
for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology
Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information
in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology
How intellectual initiatives
form and flourish
Paul Jean, Associate Director of New Research Initiatives, Emory
College Office of Research, and Daniel Teodorescu, Director of Institutional
Research, Office of the Provost
are no safe zones. They are subject to attack anywhere, at any time,”
says Erica Duncan, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, explaining
why troops returning from Iraq have much higher rates of Posttraumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD) than veterans of earlier wars. This disturbing
trend may offer researchers a chance to understand better the early
stages and development of this debilitating illness, characterized
by flashbacks of traumatic memories, fatigue, irritability, and
social withdrawal. Unlike the Vietnam War cohort who are now in
their fifties and sixties with accumulating health problems, these
soldiers just returning from Iraq generally are younger and in good
physical health. Working with soldiers at Fort Bragg, Duncan, along
with colleagues from Emory and Yale, will get a picture of this
disorder unclouded by the effects of other diseases. They can follow
population through time and treatment.
Duncan’s work on PTSD and other lines of memory research across
campus are contributing to a growing understanding of how memory
actually works. Researchers from the medical school to the arts
and sciences are finding that the making of a memory more resembles
the performance of symphony than the taking of a snapshot. And once
recorded, memories continue to change through the complex
biological and cultural dynamics of remembering.
As this body of knowledge grows, Duncan’s Iraq War veterans
may hold clues to a critical question: Why are some people with
ptsd overwhelmed with memories of trauma that dominate their perception
of reality, while others are eventually able to remember the horrors
without reliving them? Current therapies attempt to help ptsd sufferers
blunt the impact of their traumatic memories through psychotherapy
and medication. But new discoveries about the mechanisms of memories
make it possible to imagine actually erasing a traumatic memory.
What might be the implications—scientifically, socially, and
ethically—of modifying human memory?
Making and unmaking memory
Indeed, the most troubling memories seem to be the hardest to forget.
The experience of strong emotion during an event triggers the release
of neurotransmitters in several areas of the brain, such as the
hippocampus and amygdala, that facilitate the creation of a memory.
Rather than distorting the record of an event, data from experiments
with animals suggest that the emotional charge of these memories
imbues them with a particular tenacity, says Assistant Professor
of Psychiatry Kerry Ressler. His work at Grady Hospital with ptsd
sufferers—along with the research of his colleagues in the
Fear Collaboratory at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience—suggests
that the vividness or endurance of this type of fear memory is fundamental
That does not mean, however, that these memories are written instantly
in stone. “Memories exist in a labile state for a while,”
explains Robert Woodruff Professor of Psychiatry Mike Davis, also
of the Fear Collaboratory. The process through which different areas
of the brain work together to consolidate a memory may take many
years, in fact. And recalling a memory makes it somewhat plastic
again during that period of consolidation, says Davis.
In addition to being built to endure in the mind, memories
of traumatic events are also somewhat “sticky.” “Memories
of emotional events, especially aversive ones,” says Ressler,
“tend to attach themselves to anything around them and generalize
more quickly.” For example, someone raped at night may at
first fear going to the area of town where the crime occurred, then
fear going out at night, and later fear even leaving the house.
“It’s possible that these fear memories are never erased,”
says Davis. Rather, people can “extinguish” them through
learning something new that “competes with or suppresses that
original memory,” he explains.
While much of the research in the Fear Collaboratory is based on
animal models, Duncan’s laboratory at the Veteran’s
Hospital translates this work into experiments with humans. Measuring
startle responses, they study how quickly and strongly people respond
to fearful stimuli like a noise, and how quickly and strongly people
are able to suppress the physical reaction to stimuli—that
forget about their fear.
Although such work remains inconclusive, it already has had therapeutic
implications for a variety of disorders that depend on memory. Associate
Professor of Psychiatry Barbara Rothbaum, Davis, and their colleagues
in the virtual reality laboratory recently treated people who suffer
a phobia of heights with a drug that affects fear memories. Taking
this “cognitive enhancer” in combination with psychotherapy
significantly reduced the patients’ fears in two sessions,
compared to the usual seven or eight.
Scientists can imagine the development of drugs that one day may
allow doctors to intervene in the consolidation of a memory after
a traumatic event to forestall the development of psychiatric disorders.
“It’s unlikely that such drugs would be able to parse
out the good memories from the bad, and the patient would probably
have a window of amnesia around the traumatic event,” says
Duncan. But what ethical questions does this possibility raise?
“A memory is not like a potato that can be plucked out of
its soil. What if interfering with the memory of a traumatic event
disturbs other brain functions, or causes other unintended consequences?”
says John Banja, assistant director of health sciences and ethics.
“If a rape victim could lose all or some part of the memory
of the attack, how would we assess any testimony she might offer
against her alleged attacker?”
The windows of amnesia caused by these potential treatments might
create their own kinds of distress. In Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
of Psychology Robyn Fivush’s studies of women who were sexually
abused as children, some of the subjects could not recall part of
their experiences. “They worried about the gaps in their childhood
that they didn’t have memories for,” she says. “They
felt at sea and showed more problems with self-identity.”
More frightening, though, is the possibility of destroying the memory
but not the fearful feeling, cautions Duncan. “The really
important future of this work is understanding what makes some people
resilient in their reaction to trauma and learning how to enhance
that in those who are more vulnerable.”
From personal to public memory
Fivush’s work also suggests that coping effectively with memories
of awful events requires the ability to put them into a narrative
framework, even for young children. “I’m interested
in autobiographic memory—how individuals understand their
life through their
memories and how those memories coalesce in a sense of self that
is continuous in time,” she says. Trauma can challenge that
sense of self, as Fivush has found in studies of survivors of natural
disasters, rape, terrorism, and critical illness.
Narrative has further implications for the process of memory consolidation,
Fivush adds. “We remember and live in a social context. Important
life events get talked about, reminisced, and ruminated upon. So
consolidation isn’t just about fixing information that was
initially laid down. That doesn’t mean that memories are false,
but that we are continually updating what we associate with them,
reevaluating and reinterpreting them.”
While Fivush examines the cultural construction of autobiographic
memory, scholars in the humanities explore individuals’ efforts
to mold the larger memories of a culture and the interplay between
personal and public memory. Again, in these scholars’ work,
memory both shapes and is shaped by narrative.
For example, an incongruity between personal and public memory she
observed in her own family sparked Angelika Bammer’s current
book project, Memory Work: Confronting Difficult Pasts.
“What my father remembers is meeting this seventeen-year-old
girl and falling in love and marrying,” says Bammer, associate
professor in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, of her
German father’s most vivid memory of 1943.
used to be apologetic about that,” she adds, because his recollections
did not line up neatly with politically charged public memories
of the Holocaust and end of World War II in Germany. Bammer analyzes
artifacts of cultural history—like monuments, memorials, and
narratives related to events like the Holocaust—to understand
how memories become meaningful.
“We can’t really remember these difficult pasts—these
pasts that are not settled comfortably into their pastness, that
still cause us trouble, individually and collectively—until
we work to figure out our relationship to them,” she says.
“It takes real effort to figure out the myriad ways something
is meaningful to us, what we have lost, and what we will reclaim
Like Bammer, Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, assistant professor in the
Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, analyzes the web of relations
among historical facts, individual memories, and the making of cultural
meaning. While her research, like Bammer’s, ranges over literary
texts, historical documents, and cultural artifacts, Wallace-Sanders
focuses on their shaping of discourses on race and gender in America.
Her study of representations of the “Black Mammy” analyzes
shifting representations of this figure over time and in a variety
striking were the post-Civil War efforts she found to memorialize
the enslaved women who served as mammies. These memorials, Wallace-Sanders
says, reflect an attempt by some white Southerners to assert a particular
narrative of slavery and slave loyalty—to consolidate their
personal memories as public history. Diaries, letters, advertisements,
dolls, even an effort to build a Mammy Memorial during the Reconstruction
era, document the significance of this figure. “What was at
stake,” says Wallace-Sanders, “was nothing less than
the memory of the pre-Civil War era South.”
What is at stake in these diverse investigations varies widely,
from bold new therapies to collective understandings of the past.
Common among them, however, is the question of how human beings
come to terms with inescapably difficult memories. These diverse
approaches are finding that for most of us, William Faulkner got
it right when he wrote, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s
not even past.”—A.B.B.