So, one of the new TV series we’ve been starting to watch is Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. We haven’t watched that many eps yet, but overall we’ve enjoyed it. Eliza Dushku plays an operative for a private agency who’s agents are programmed (imprinted) to assume any identity and skillset needed. When finished, their minds are made to forget everything that just happened and are left as blank-slates for the next imprinting. (Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being able to do that after most Philadelphia Eagles’ games, actually, but that’s all crazy science fiction stuff, right?)
This show crossed my mind today when I came across a paper in the Journal of Neuroscience about the identification of a biochemical pathway involved in inhibitory learning. What’s that? Inhibitory learning is essentially “un-learning” – forgetting altogether or diminishing the response to very stressful events and memories. It’s one mechanism humans use to cope with really bad things – the mental equivalent of the extreme of "blocking it out" to the more commonplace “time heals all wounds”.
It’s thought that defects in inhibitory learning can lead to phobias, anxiety disorders and more recently post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People suffering from these ailments are unable to exhibit “normal” responses to external stimuli – often debilitatingly so. The researchers were able to show that deletion in one of the receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate (think: MSG) prevented mice from being to “unlearn” a painful stimuli or “forget” an old arrangement to a maze. (I feel that way sometimes when can’t find my car after I’ve parked it somewhere other than my “usual” spot in our lot at work…)
The hypothesis is that by cranking up the glutamate sensing system you might be able to help folks get past their phobias or allow PTSD sufferers to be able to better cope with the world again.
Now mice in a maze are a long way from a treatment, but it’s enticing to think about being able to diminish the effects of bad memories. Bad date got you afraid of asking someone out? Poof. No problem. Tough landing on a runway got you afraid of flying? Zot .. and you’re on your way. It looks pretty easy on Dollhouse.
What do you think? Are there memories that you can’t seem to get rid of that you would purge? For me, I don’t think so – I don’t have many traumatic things that I obsess over and think my bad memories help me appreciate the good ones that much more.
Now if I could only find my car…