Anyone for a memory reboot?

Who else likes to think they’re pretty organised? 

Just kidding. I don’t even pretend to be. Apart from a thin veneer of structure imposed on my electronic existence. Pay attention if you’re in the market for a quick fix! This trick consists of starting all file names with the date in reverse year-month-day order, a pearl of wisdom picked up from a super organised medical secretary. Inspired though they were, implementing it in my case is a bit like attempting to timestamp the components of a rapidly expanding seaweed forest- as soon as you pin down one branch, ten more slip away from you in opposing directions.

Recent events have thrown my substandard file management into sharp relief. Two sessions descended into utter chaos due to unexpected computer glitches with the resulting loss of several hours of music. After much swearing and gnashing of teeth it was established that the reason my computer is playing up is that I have filled its brain with large quantities of, shall we say, nonsense. That patch I half downloaded six months ago but then decided it was rubbish? Still there. Those video files I copied over to two external hard drives and a cloud backup? Yup, they’re hanging out in the download folder. That therapeutic essay I wrote while feeling frustrated about someone else’s arsehole behaviour over a decade ago? That’s right, it’s still taking up valuable gigabytes. 

While in the process of clearing out all of this detritus I have been reflecting on how wonderful it would be were we able to do the same kind of clear out with our brains. I know for sure that the memory areas of mine are full of extraneous events which are in many cases boring and in some frankly upsetting. One can of course manipulate one’s memories- every time we think about something we renew it in our minds. That’s how eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, helps to heal traumatic memories. Reliving them in a safe place surrounded by empathy and love and soothing stimuli helps us to recreate them anew, dulling the emotional impact with each retrieval. 

Hoping that someone, somewhere would already have figured out how to do this by now, I had a quick browse of the medical internet. Physical traces of memories have long been spoken of as engrams, quasi mythical structures which have proved extremely challenging to identify using science.  However, a technique called functional MRI imaging allows us to see the location of people’s brain activity as they are trying to suppress unwanted memories. I’ve undergone this process myself when participating in a study on reflex epilepsy and find it uncannily similar to a spa treatment. Lying in a tunnel while listening to repetitive clunking noises and visualising playing music can be incredibly soothing. I imagine that being confined in similar circumstances while remembering your worst experiences would instead be hugely stressful, so I’m grateful to the participants of this study, whoever they may be, for putting themselves through it for our benefit. 

This paper identified that there are two main areas of the brain involved in memory suppression. One is the hippocampus which acts as a kind of guard-seahorse, discouraging us from accessing unwanted memories. The other involves a few different areas in the pre frontal cortex, the same part of the brain where my epilepsy is triggered, which act as a redirect function, sending signals back to more hospitable neurons. 

Unfortunately this is as far as science seems to have progressed at the moment, so anyone else like me who is after a good brain clearout is going to have to resort to non evidence based methods…. Personally, I have a strong feeling that when the mechanisms behind memory are identified our brains are going to look very similar to my hard drive- full of extraneous function impeding rubbish. Bring on the medical equivalent of emptying the trash bin! 

PS The next episode of Spiral Dial is still on track, thanks to the power of hexadecimals- more fixable than brains!