The Malleable Mind

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WORDS Mia Kwok

How our minds work is mysterious and fascinating. From Hollywood films, to historical theories, we examine how we perceive memory and why it’s all so important to us. 

We all have an ongoing fascination with memory and we use our memories more than we realise. Haven’t we all had that momentary flutter while reading an exam question? Many of us have also stood up to go and get something from another room, but forgotten what it was as soon as we get there.
Even more importantly, our sense of who we are is a product of our experiences. It is our memory of these past experiences, both positive and negative, that defines our present identity. So when we begin to question the reliability of memory, we are then attacking the essence of who we are. Our fascination with memory is really a reflection on what makes up our individual identities.

The Hollywood reproduction of memory loss, plays on our fears that memory can be corrupted, or lost. Hollywood writer, Lee Server, describes memory loss as “noir’s version of the common cold”. Sometimes the memory loss is forced, sometimes welcomed, but it always comes with certain pitfalls surrounding the characters’ identities.  Films such as Memento (2000) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) have become synonymous with discussions of memory loss. These films address the absence of these autobiographical memories and the tragedy that surrounds it.

Who Am I?
Psychoanalyst and former Macquarie student, Mirelle D’Mello suggests that “emotionally and developmentally salient episodes such as graduating, getting married or having a child are remembered particularly well”. D’Mello works for Neuroscience Research Australia, investigating biomarkers in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. “Recent research has shown that such emotionally salient events in autobiographical memory have implications for, and impact on, our sense of self”.

[quote]“Memories are a process of chemical functions within the brain. When we remember, the brain creates proteins to make stable connections between areas of the brain.”[/quote]

How It Works
Researchers have found that the areas of the brain that process identity communicate directly with the regions that process memory and emotion. Memory, emotion and our sense of identity are inextricably linked together. Even neurologically, the primary region associated with memory, the hippocampus, is structurally linked to our centre of emotion, the amygdala.

Memories are a process of chemical functions within the brain. When we remember, the brain creates proteins to make stable connections between areas of the brain. Every time we re-remember an event, the brain creates new proteins, effectively creating new pathways to access the information. This process is called reconsolidation. The fallibility of our memory lies in this process. Each time we create a new pathway, we are effectively by-passing certain bits of information that make up the memory.

“The memory systems of the brain are also highly susceptible to new incoming information,” says D’Mello. “In this sense, the brain and its memory systems have a degree of malleability – especially for memories that are not so well consolidated or have gaps of missing information.”
“Encoding and retrieving information: retrieving information is easier when done in the same environment that it is learned or encoded. A classic example is exam performance – information that is learned in a classroom setting and then examined in that same environment assists in the process of remembering.”

When thinking about a prominent historical event, such as September 11, I have to forge a new and temporary path to that information. The memory of it can be influenced depending on who I am sharing the story with, where I am at the time or I can even replace images that I saw at the time with new images I have seen since. One case where this happened is the crash of the El Al Boeing 747 in Amsterdam. A psychological study saw 60 per cent of participants stating that they had seen the crash on television. Some gave detailed responses when describing the images they saw. In fact, no one could have seen the crash on television at all. It was never filmed.

Visualising memory
Throughout history we have come up with a number of metaphors for our memory. Within these metaphors lies the idea that at some point memories become inaccessible. We assume that the biographical memories we have are stored safely away despite the fact we may not be able to get to them. However, in the last century it has become clear to scientists and philosophers alike that memories are not just inaccessible, they are malleable.
Rather than comparing our minds to the latest storage technology available, it is perhaps best to see it as something less fixed. Scientifically, there are several different systems of memory that all interact with each other. The mind is constantly being molded and reshaped as we live our lives, as we communicate with others and as we interact with our environments. Our minds are malleable. They are subject to the world around them. This can have dire implications for society, for example, witness statements in courtrooms, where the ongoing exoneration of innocent suspects of crimes continues to result from false statements.

We all remember, and we all forget. Cogito ergo sum. In the end, could it be that the way we think defines who we are? Certainly if our memories are malleable that means that our identities are too. Development is an essential part of human nature. If our memories were to stay the same, then perhaps we would never be able to grow and adapt to changing environments.