Recalling a frightening moment or event can be unsettling as your body revisits the sense of danger and panic you first experienced, and the frequent recurrence of these recollections can even lay a foundation for anxiety disorders. Yet, according to new research from the department of psychology at New York University, there may actually be a way to rewrite these “fear memories” to extract the sting of panic and discomfort. Previous research into long-term memory has found that, with “extinction training”—which involves re-living a frightening experience in a safe environment—psychologists are able to help people suppress fear memories. Yet, even with this technique, stressful situations can still cause that memory, and the emotions associated with it, to come surging back. What researchers found in this latest study, however, was that in the period just after a memory is recollected, and before it is “reconsolidated” back into our mind’s memory bank, it may be vulnerable to editing.
The study, published in the journal Nature, created fear memories in subjects by showing them an object while simultaneously delivering mild electric shocks. Researchers confirmed the fear memories by measuring skin conductivity response—an indication of sympathetic nervous system activation—when subjects were later shown the objects. On the second day of the study, subjects were asked to recall the object from the day before, a request that required them to pull up the fear memory, and also initiate the reconsolidation process. Shortly after subjects were reminded of the fear memory, researchers introduced new information intended to rewrite that memory—suggesting that the original object was in fact safe, not harmful. On the third day of the study, subjects were again shown the object while researchers monitored them for fear response.
They found that, subjects who had introduced new, safe information into a fear memory during the reconsolidation window didn’t show any fear response when later shown the object used to create the memory. What’s more, researchers tested a group of the original study participants a year later to determine if the effects persisted, and found that, even after so much time had elapsed, exposure to the object still didn’t inspire a fear response.
The tea of researchers, led by NYU post-doctoral fellow Daniela Schiller, hope that these findings might offer an alternative to pharmaceuticals—which are often relied on to help people stop the cycle of fear—and lead to therapeutic techniques that enable people battling anxiety disorders or other conditions to rewrite and overcome their fear memories.