Stories tagged the brain

Take a look at the picture below, or link to a larger version of it here. Who do you see? Now stand up and walk 15 feet from you computer and look again (or just squint your eyes). Suddenly Albert Einstein becomes Marilyn Monroe. Cognitive scientists use pictures just like this to understand how our brains perceive the things we are looking at. In the case of this picture of Einstein and Monroe, the explanation that researchers like Aude Olive at MIT have found is that our eyes pick-up sharp lines and blurry shapes differently depending on things time and distance from an object. By studying how people perceive optical illusions and hybrid images like this, researchers hope to better understand how our abilities of perception work in order to better treat cognitive disorders or to build better robots. If you're a fan of optical illusions, you can see another one in an earlier Buzz Blog post, and many more on this website.

Source: Mike Olson for Wired

Who do you see in this Hybrid Image?
Who do you see in this Hybrid Image?Courtesy Aude Olivia at MIT

Apr
06
2009

What if your doctor could prescribe a pill that would erase any and all of your worst memories instantly?!

Rather than reliving it every single day, you could simply forget the time in 6th grade when you farted while doing sit-ups in gym class, and the day that your beloved cat Pookie was run down by your mother's Buick, and the boyfriend who broke your heart when he ran off to join the circus.

Rather than dwelling on bad memories, you could forget about them and move on to live the rest of your happy sunshiny life.

While it may sound like the plot of a certain indie film, brain scientists at a lab in Brooklyn are working on a scientific breakthrough that may make all of this possible. They've discovered that a chemical in the brain called PKMzeta acts like a speed dial to all of our worst (and best) memories. When a drug called ZIP is injected directly into the brain, memories are blocked and viola! No more dwelling on the painful, embarrassing, traumatic past.

Nevermind that it isn't quite that simple, or that this method has only been tested on rats, or that it involves a chemical being injected directly into the brain. It's from Brooklyn, so you know it'll be on the gifts & novelties table at Urban Outfitters just in time for the holidays. In fact, I can already see the marketing campaign involving lots of waifish models who apparently forgot to eat.

While this kind of 'made to order' miracle memory eraser won't be hitting the shelves anytime soon, there is a whole lot of money being spent on research that aims to better understand how memory works inside our brains. The reason that scientists want to know how memory works is that memory is so important to our emotions, our ability to learn, our spatial knowledge, our motor skills and much much more. When it isn't working as it should be, all kinds of problems can result.

For some people, painful and traumatic memories can wreak havoc on their emotional and social lives. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression are examples of diseases that involve the unconscious recall of frightening or upsetting memories. If these memories could be blocked, patients might experience a dramatically improved quality of life. Bad habits are also tied to our memories, since addictive behaviors are learned. If memories of experiences with drugs and alcohol could be blocked, some addicts might stand a better chance of recovery. And for those who suffer from Alzheimer's or Dementia, improvements in the understanding of memory could lead to new methods of memory enhancement, helping to reduce the impact of these diseases.

While plenty of good things will come from this kind of research, it also raises ethical questions. Any drug that can dramatically improve or block selected parts of our memory will inevitably find a commercial market among people who may not suffer from any disease at all. Students who can afford them might start taking memory enhancing drugs right before an exam, criminals might use memory blockers to short circuit the moral questions that arise from their behavior and ordinary people might be tempted to use memory blockers to forget painful or embarrassing moments, rather than learning from them.

To top it all off, since our good and bad memories are not neatly sorted for doctors to target, erasing painful memories would probably mean getting rid of some of the good ones as well. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is which, since good or bad, your memories make you who you are today.

Source: New York Times