The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Vol. 7 No. 1
September 2004

The Present Past
The science and art of memory

Memories of emotional events, especially aversive ones, tend to attach themselves to anything around them.
Kerry Ressler Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Trauma in a weird way is about the future. . . . It's the sense that it's probably going to happen again.
Angelika Bammer, Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Upon 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 Asian Studies

Neuroscience for Bird Brains
An unconventioal frontier for understanding social behavior
Donna Maney, Assistant Professor of Psychology

The Politics of Advice
Biased scientific information in government agencies
Mike Kuhar, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology

Crossing Boundaries
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


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"There 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 this
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 to PTSD.

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 is, to
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.

“He 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 in memory.”

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 of media.

Most 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.