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The memory eraser

By on November 13, 2014
Picture courtesy of Hywards and

OK this article deals with optogenetics in mice, I know: yawn-yawn.

But the results are really interested so stay with us on this one, please. Optogenetics involves changing brain cells so they can be turned on or off using light which is shined into the brain. Don’t worry, they only do this with mice and other lab animals (I guess you should worry if you happen to be a mouse living in a lab…).

The research involved giving a mouse a small electric shock in a certain cage. Normally a mouse will run round to explore if placed in a new cage, but if the mouse has a memory of being shocked in that cage, it understandably freezes instead of exploring. The mouses behavior tells researchers whether it has the memory of the shock it has received before.

After shocking the mouse, the researchers used optogenetics to track the specific brain cels in the hippocampus (responsible for memory formation) and the cortex that fired off. The cells in the cortex represent the sensory experience the mouse was having at the time of the shock, i.e. what the mouse is seeing and hearing when shocked.

These neurons could also be turned off with light. When the mouse was reintroduced to the cage, as expected it froze because it remembered the shock. But when the specific cells in the hippocampus were turned off the mouse happily explored the cage as if it had never been shocked, and those hippocampus cells were directly linked to the sensory cells in the cortex.

What this shows is that while remembering, the hippocampus sends signals that re-stimulate the neurons responsible for recording the initial sensory experience. We literally see what we saw, and hear what we heard, whenever we remember.

Application to Hypnosis

There are several techniques in hypnosis and NLP that allow us to recode, depotentiate, or even destroy memories.

For example in the NLP ‘phobia cure’ or ‘V-K dissociation’, the client is invited to recall the event that lead to the phobia (on a movie screen to maintain dissociation and prevent the negative feelings from being reactivated). The sensory memories are then changed using various ‘tricks’. For example the movie of the scene might be run backwards, or run forwards at a super fast speed, or run in black and white. The sound track might be changed by adding circus music.

These changes mess with the initial sensory coding, just as the light that was shone into the mouse’s brain turned off the cells in the hippocampus and prevented the neurons in the sensory cortex from being triggered.

This research offers a convincing explanation of how techniques such as the NLP phobia cure work.

The theory is that learning involves processing in the cortex, and the hippocampus reproduces this pattern of activity during retrieval, allowing you to re-experience the event. If the hippocampus is damaged, patients can lose decades of memories. Scientists erase specific memories in mice — ScienceDaily

Picture courtesy of Hywards and

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