Memory Manipulation – Promises and Perils

It is generally accepted in the field, that memories are rarely an exact replication of our experiences and, over time, they degrade and becomes less accurate. Yet, they are absolutely necessary for our survival, none-the-less. In fact, psychology claims that we have no future without the recall of our past!

Psychology identifies four core processes of human memory: registration, encoding, storage and retrieval. Psychology also differentiates among three types of memory: sensory, short-term (also referred to as working), and long-term. These various memory sub-types vary in duration and capacity, with long-term memory (LTM) exhibiting unlimited capacity and duration. In regards to LTM, facts and figures are stored in declarative, while actions are stored in procedural.

There are a host of factors that degrade human memory. I list only a few in this article. One, is natural distortion, another is a defense mechanism called repression. Biological and psychogenic amnesia due to trauma are also degrading factors. Contamination by a host of information at one time or over time, is another.

There are a number of ways to enhance human memory. One is through effective encoding. Another is via rehearsal. Chunking, bits of information, is a third.

Dr. Thomas Insel, Director of NIMH reports on two promising interventions. One is optogenetics and the other is functional Transmagnetic Stimulation (fTMS). Both approaches have been used with some success in mice and rats. They may offer some hope, eventually, to humans who exhibit serious memory deficiencies.

Using a highly focused beam of light to stimulate tracks of brain neurons to turn off and on, is the optogenetics approach. Essentially, it involves genetic alterations of these neurons. fTMS, on the other hand, works by directing magnetic beams at specific neuronal circuits.

Dr. Insel indicates that psychotherapy and counseling works at relieving negative memories of trauma, such as those we clinicians often encounter with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet, he says that these newer interventions raise additional moral and ethical concerns. But why?

I regard memory formation, storage, and recall to be fundamental to our survival. In the limbic brain, (which I refer to as the reacting brain) are three critical structures involved in the memory processes.The amygdala imprints positive or negative emotions to our initial experiences. In time, the hypothalamus regulates these emotions. It is the role of the hippocampus to convert short-term to long-term memory. We tend to gravitate to experiences and memories that are pleasurable; while we tend to avoid those that make us feel uncomfortable.

It is the negative experiences and unpleasant memories that propel our clients to seek psychotherapy or counseling. People want relieved of some of this discomfort. However, it is a monumental clinical task to “erase” many of the negatives and enhance many of the positives. I believe we can learn as much, if not more, from unpleasant events. I pose this dilemma to students during critical thinking exercises in some of my courses in this regard. Invariably, they conclude that they would elect to delete certain positive memories/experiences and retain more significant negative ones. Both serve as fundamental reference points to future experiences. Therefore, retaining both sides of our experiences can enhance our ability to survive, even thrive!

So, by any means, we need to be extremely cautious in altering, even deleting a person’s memories. In life, we often take the good with the bad.


I highly recommend viewing the recently released movie, The Giver, for those who are very interested in this topic.

Thomas Insel, M.D. Director’s Blog. 28 August, 2014. Manipulating Memory. National Institute of Mental Health.

Rod Plotnik and Haig Kouyoumddjian. (2014). Introduction to Psychology. 10th Ed.Cengage Learning.

Image via Mariia Masich / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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