The Science of Forgetting: News!

(Via SourceFed) I love any news about the way our brains work -- especially new science on that front.  One of the most interesting things I think our brains do is remember things.  Some philosophers, most prominently John Locke, have argued that memory is the essential feature of continuity of personhood -- that is, you are the same person across your lifetime because you have a single narrative of memories connecting you.

If that's true, this new study says some interesting things about self-creation.

"This study focuses on the molecular biology of active forgetting," said Ron Davis, chair of the Scripps Research Department of Neuroscience who led the project. "Until now, the basic thought has been that forgetting is mostly a passive process. Our findings make clear that forgetting is an active process that is probably regulated."


The study suggests that when a new memory is first formed, there also exists an active, dopamine-based forgetting mechanism -- ongoing dopamine neuron activity -- that begins to erase those memories unless some importance is attached to them, a process known as consolidation that may shield important memories from the dopamine-driven forgetting process. (Source)

So, what we remember about the world -- the way we experience it, and the way we're able to examine that experience later -- is fundamentally based on what we attach importance to.

For example, later today, when I'm talking about this study, I'm going to remember most the philosophical implications, not the abbreviations in the SourceFed video which I've already forgotten, even though I know they spent a decent chunk of time creating puns around one of them.  I also remember what Joe Bereta's shirt said, because I liked it, but not what Elliott Morgan's shirt said, though I do know it was black.

The article suggests that this might be an avenue towards creating cognitive enhancement drugs by suppressing memory loss:

[Ron Davis, project leader, said,] "This also might be a strategy for developing drugs to promote cognition and memory -- what about drugs that inhibit forgetting as cognitive enhancers?" (Source)

Medicine is medicine, and I've never known of philosophical concerns standing in the way of scientific progress, but if identity does have to do with what we remember, and what we forget, what would that sort of drug do to identity?  It might damage an individual's ability to pursue a particular, well-defined self-conception.  Or, it might help free people to redefine themselves by smoothing the pathway to changing their sense of significance.  I know I'd love to be able to hack my brain into more affection for math.

I guess that would come down to the way the drug would work, though.  And I'm getting ahead of myself, anyway.  The great news is we know more about the way the brain works.