Forgotten memories not erased, just inaccessible, scientists say

Though some memories may be inaccessible to you, they're not entirely gone, and could potentially be retrieved, according to new research from the University of California, Irvine.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

If you've ever forgotten something and thought it to be lost forever, don't despair -- it's still filed away in your brain.

You just can't access it.

Though some of your memories may be inaccessible to you, they're not entirely gone and could potentially be retrieved, according to new research by scientists at the University of California, Irvine.

A team led by neurobiologist Jeffrey Johnson submitted 16 willing college students through an fMRI machine to compare brain activity patterns during memory formation and recall.

Each student was shown a list of words and asked to say each word backwards, imagine its use and how an artist would draw it. After 20 minutes, researchers showed the students the list again, and asked them to remember as much as they could about the word.

As expected, recollection triggered the same patterns as when the students originally learned the words. Those students with strong conscious recall showed strong signals.

But those students with no conscious recall still showed a signal. That indicates that the students' neurons are firing in a way that resembles when they first learned the words -- even if they can't remember them.

Wired explains:

It’s possible that the students lied about what they remembered. But if not, then memory may truly persist. The question then is how long memories could last — weeks, months, even years.

“We can only speculate that this is the case,” said Johnson, who plans to run brain-imaging studies of memory degradation over days and weeks.

As for whether those memories could be intentionally guided to the surface, Johnson says that “at this stage, we’re just happy to be able to find evidence of reinstatement at a weak level. That would be something down the line.”

Or, to use the analogy of your computer's hard drive: memories may not be so "data lost!" as much as "access denied."

More research must be done, of course, but the potential is clear: perhaps one day we'll be able to retrieve memories we thought were lost forever.

Leonard Shelby would be pleased.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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