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The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory

April 8, 2009

Somewhere in the mind a lunatic shuffled a pack of snapshots and dealt them out at random, shuffled once more and dealt them out in different order, again and again, indefinitely. There was no chronology.

– Aldous Huxley, from “Eyeless in Gaza”

Ever done something you wish you could forget? Someday maybe you will be able to take a drink from the river Lethe. Neuroscientists have isolated a molecule crucial to memory function and figured out how to manipulate it to induce forgetfulness. Dr. Todd C. Sacktor from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn has determined that the molecule PKMzeta is necessary for long term memories to persist and together with colleague Dr. André A. Fenton they have shown that by interfering with PKMzeta, memory can be erased.

To find out what, if anything, PKMzeta meant for living, breathing animals, Dr. Sacktor walked a flight downstairs to the lab of André A. Fenton, also of SUNY Downstate, who studies spatial memory in mice and rats.

Dr. Fenton had already devised a clever way to teach animals strong memories for where things are located. He teaches them to move around a small chamber to avoid a mild electric shock to their feet. Once the animals learn, they do not forget. Placed back in the chamber a day later, even a month later, they quickly remember how to avoid the shock and do so.

But when injected — directly into their brain — with a drug called ZIP that interferes with PKMzeta, they are back to square one, almost immediately. “When we first saw this happen, I had grad students throwing their hands up in the air, yelling,” Dr. Fenton said. “Well, we needed a lot more than that” one study.

They now have it. Dr. Fenton’s lab repeated the experiment, in various ways; so has a consortium of memory researchers, each using a different method. Researchers led by Yadin Dudai at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel found that one dose of ZIP even made rats forget a strong disgust they had developed for a taste that had made them sick — three months earlier.

At this stage the process sounds more like a chemical lobotomy than anything that would be able to target and erase specific individual memories. And the use of this process also raises many ethical questions. But if it is ever perfected in some future brave new world, would you use it? What would you throw down the memory hole?

And where did I put my keys?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Stemella permalink*
    April 9, 2009 6:16 am

    Total recall … No, I’m against it. If people were trustworthy and ethical it could be an important alternative treatment for patients with PTSD, those who experienced debilitating trauma, or those with mental disorders. But people are not trustworthy and ethical. Recent history with other memory altering techniques such as the application of shock treatment, labotomy, mind bending drugs…. Nope, people aren’t to be trusted with such powers, especially if the treatment is irreversible.

    When I think of things I’d like to forget it mostly involves pain, whether mental or physical, but those pains are great teachers. I’d prefer to have the lessons retained rather than to relive them by having lost them.

    We humans don’t deserve a brave new world; we’ve fucked up the current one too much. It’s time for the cephalopods to take over, or preferably the stemella. ;)

    • cometman permalink*
      April 9, 2009 8:26 am

      I wouldn’t erase anything either. Memories are what makes you what you are. It is strange how memory seems to work though. For example, that Huxley quote I included sprang to mind when I read the NYT article and I hadn’t read the book for years. Took me a while to track it down exactly though – my memory isn’t that good :) And then your comment brought to mind a passage I read in Hesse’s Steppenwolf where he talks about why even the bad experiences and memories are important because they are what shapes us. Can’t find the exact quote off the top of my head but it was very poetic and metaphysical (if I recall correctly) and mentioned that these experiences make us “of the stars” or something to that effect.

      Rather than erasure, what I would like is a neural shunt, probably because I’ve been reading too much sci fi. But being able to download massive amounts of information directly to your brain so you could process it quickly seems pretty bad ass. Then I wouldn’t waste an hour looking for a quote if I could just turn the pages in my brain :P

      I should be careful what I wish for though. Read about a guy with a photographic memory who would go on stage and do memory tricks. He’d be flashed a long series of cards or signs and then asked to repeat them for the audience. He never forgot any of them and always got them right. Problem was he didn’t just remember the series for the duration of the performance – he remembered it FOREVER. He couldn’t stop remembering random sequences of useless information and I think he stopped performing because of it. He got overloaded. So I guess with my neural shunt I should remember to purchase some extra RAM too.

      • Stemella permalink*
        April 9, 2009 6:26 pm

        Aww man. I had almost forgotten about Hesse and Steppenwolf and Sidhartha. I loved him but hated the shit out of having to write papers about those books way way back in highschool. And now it all comes rushing back. I don’t remember the quote though. And I’m too tired to look.

        It would be pretty cool to have a neural download, search and definitely a reboot button for the noggin. I would like somemore RAM too! I have a very strong memory function for intensely useless things, like where someone else put their keys five years ago. Makes me nuts. It was handy for studying history though.

      • triv33 permalink
        April 9, 2009 10:01 pm

        Oh, hell, no. I’ve lost little chunks of my memory and I don’t believe for one minute that they will be able to target that accurately. When I run up against a little memory gap it is usually random as hell. Now, you might still want me on your team in a trivia tourney, but I am not the ringer I once was.

    • cometman permalink*
      April 9, 2009 8:42 am

      Check out the automatically generated link above. Very funny post on the same subject which included this:

      We don’t really have any specific info about the drug itself, or how it works, so until then… we’ll just have to keep hoping that the lyrics to Use Your Illusion II fade on their own.

  2. cometman permalink*
    April 9, 2009 8:39 am

    This article from the NYT has got me hot under the collar. Evidently they are performing those “stress tests” on the banks and are finding that surprise surprise, they are in good shape but they still need lots more of our money. One of the most Orwellian things I’ve read in a while.

    What they are discovering may come as a relief to both the financial industry and the public: the banking industry, broadly speaking, seems to be in better shape than many people think, officials involved in the examinations say.

    That is the good news. The bad news is that many of the largest American lenders, despite all those bailouts, probably need to be bailed out again, either by private investors or, more likely, the federal government. After receiving many millions, and in some cases, many billions of taxpayer dollars, banks still need more capital, these officials say.


    Regulators say all 19 banks undergoing the exams will pass them. Indeed, they say this is a test that a bank simply will not fail: if the examiners determine that a bank needs “exceptional assistance,” the government, that is, taxpayers, will provide it.

    So the tests aren’t even finished and yet we already know the banks will pass. So why the hell are we bothering? And when they say “the banking industry broadly speaking…” are they talking about just the 19 banks undergoing the tests or the entire industry? And if the industry as a whole is sound and can continue lending, then why the hell are we bailing out the few bad ones, other than the fact they they bribed off Congress with millions in campaign donations?

    And then there’s this:

    The tests, led by the Federal Reserve, rely on a series of computer-generated “what-if” projections in the event the economy deteriorates. Those include unemployment rising to 10.3 percent by next year, home prices falling an additional 22 percent this year, and the economy contracting by 3.3 percent this year and staying flat in 2010.

    I wonder if the FAIL 9000 or whatever the hell the computer is called is asking “What if the bank turns out to be run by an incompetent thieving boobs who are only interested in lining their own pockets?” That might be good to know too since the same crooks are still running the show.

    These stress tests seem like nothing but smoke and mirrors to put one over on the rubes. The oligarchs are hoping that we’ll be blinded by the dismal science.

  3. cometman permalink*
    April 9, 2009 9:56 am

    Good read from Mike Whitney again today: The Decade of Darkness . He mentions again how the banks will very likely use the PIPP to buy their own or each other’s bad assets to scam the taxpayer but a couple of other things stuck out. First, the vast majority of the crap assets are concentrated in the 5 biggest banks:

    According to political analyst F. William Engdahl, most of the garbage assets are concentrated in the nation’s five biggest banks:

    “Today five US banks according to data in the just-released Federal Office of Comptroller of the Currency’s Quarterly Report on Bank Trading and Derivatives Activity, hold 96 per cent of all US bank derivatives positions in terms of nominal values, and an eye-popping 81 per cent of the total net credit risk exposure in event of default.

    The five are, in declining order of importance: JPMorgan Chase which holds a staggering $88 trillion in derivatives (€66 trillion!). Morgan Chase is followed by Bank of America with $38 trillion in derivatives, and Citibank with $32 trillion. Number four in the derivatives sweepstakes is Goldman Sachs with a ‘mere’ $30 trillion in derivatives. Number five, the merged Wells Fargo-Wachovia Bank, drops dramatically in size to $5 trillion. Number six, Britain’s HSBC Bank USA has $3.7 trillion. (“Geithner’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’: The Entire Global Financial System is at Risk”, F. William Engdahl, Global Research)

    Sounds to me like the hundreds of other banks would be able to pick up the slack if this dead weight were simply allowed to go under. Put them into receivership and sell off the good assets to the responsible banks and put back the firewall that separated investment and commercial banks. This could be done a lot more cheaply than the trillions we are spending to prop them up which will probably bankrupt the whole economy. Somebody needs to listen to what Elizabeth warren was saying in her report.

    Secondly there was this:

    Geithner’s plan does not fix the problems with the banks, it only delays the final outcome. The next leg-down in the recession will push many of the undercapitalized banks into receivership. Geithner’s PPIP won’t change that. As housing prices fall and foreclosures rise, the capital position of many of the banks will become untenable leading to a rash of bank failures. An article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal puts adds some historical perspective to today’s financial crisis:

    “The events of the past 10 years have an eerie similarity to the period leading up to the Great Depression. Total mortgage debt outstanding increased from $9.35 billion in 1920 to $29.44 billion in 1929. In 1920, residential mortgage debt was 10.2 per cent of household wealth; by 1929, it was 27.2 per cent of household wealth….

    The causes of the Great Depression need more study, but the claims that losses on stock-market speculation and a monetary contraction caused the decline of the banking system both seem inadequate. It appears that both the Great Depression and the current crisis had their origins in excessive consumer debt — especially mortgage debt — that was transmitted into the financial sector during a sharp downturn.

    Why does one crash cause minimal damage to the financial system, so that the economy can pick itself up quickly, while another crash leaves a devastated financial sector in the wreckage? The hypothesis we propose is that a financial crisis that originates in consumer debt, especially consumer debt concentrated at the low end of the wealth and income distribution, can be transmitted quickly and forcefully into the financial system. It appears that we’re witnessing the second great consumer debt crash, the end of a massive consumption binge.” (From Bubble to Depression? Steven Gjerstad and Vernon L. Smith, Wall Street Journal)

    Are these geniuses really just figuring out that bad things happen when you invest with money you don’t really have? Just finding out that buying overpriced real estate on credit assuming it will appreciate indefinitely is a recipe for disaster? Jesus Q Lapdancing Xrist!!!!!!!!! Somebody obviously needs to jog the memories of Geithner and the rest of these Wall Street ass clowns. Maybe they should read this.

  4. cometman permalink*
    April 9, 2009 2:41 pm

    Another zapateur! This time in India.

    Doubtless inspired by the Iraqi journalist, Jarnail Singh, a veteran Delhi reporter, tossed his shoe — a solid Reebok trainer — at Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Jarnail works for the Hindi newspaper, dainik jagran (The Daily Awakening). For the Home Minister, it was a rude awakening. Jarnail Singh was miffed with the Congress Party for fielding two tainted candidates from parliamentary constituencies in Delhi in our ongoing national elections.

    Viva Zapato!

    • Stemella permalink*
      April 9, 2009 6:37 pm

      Viva! Viva Zapatos! Beats the hell out of stoopid teabags! Teabaggers! hahaha Republicans are so retarded.

  5. Stemella permalink*
    April 10, 2009 8:12 am

    Good op ed piece from the Guardian here: Socialism has failed. Now capitalism is bankrupt. So what comes next?

    But a progressive policy needs more than just a bigger break with the economic and moral assumptions of the past 30 years. It needs a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end. The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people.


    The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the “capabilities” of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy – not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.

    • cometman permalink*
      April 10, 2009 9:24 am

      What’s next? Maybe better socialism? I see this guy’s point but he does equate the Soviet Union with socialism. I always thought they liked to call that communism. But as capitalism fails, it seems like many are trying to equate socialism with communism as a way to discredit it and prove that capitalism is the best we’ve got. Personally I don’t really like using -isms to describe the different systems, but since people do it’s worth noting this recent Rasmussen poll showing that more and more people are disillusioned with capitalism and a significant amount would prefer socialism.

      Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism.

      The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.

      I don’t put too much credence in polls like these as many of the people asked probably couldn’t define these -isms very well. But it does indicate a trend of dissatisfaction with the current system at the very least.

      What I’d like to see is government providing essential services like education, health care, transportation, and communication funded either through taxes or a combination of taxes and reasonable fees. I really don’t mind paying a buck to ride the public bus. Goods would still be provided by a well regulated free market system. I don’t want the government telling me what selection of shoes or cars I can buy, but I do want to buy something that isn’t produced in a factory that makes overall living conditions for every living thing worse through pollution and environmental destruction.

      The way I look at it, the failings of capitalism and communism are that they both meld together corporate and state power. In communism the state takes over the corporations and in capitalism the corporations take over the state. And either way the majority of people end up screwed.

      • Stemella permalink*
        April 10, 2009 10:44 am

        Your last pp there sums it up perfectly. It is time to come up with a system based on a balance of freedom and regulation that rewards those who abide and punishes the cheaters, while allowing for freedom as long as those freedoms don’t impinge upon the public good. True costs, external costs, like pollution, costs that harm, have to be factored in, just like the toxic assets. No more sweeping shit like that off the books or into the ocean and drinking water. Accountability!! that’s what I want. Every body should earn what they earn and pay what they owe. Fairness! That would be really good too. And Justice for those who don’t do the fairness and accountable thing.

        The key to any system actually working relates to the economy of size. Everything is SuperSized and on steroids now. Break the fuckers down to a manageable size, from banks to governmental units. Corporations need to be smaller again along with government, so that neither is too big to take over the other and especially not too big to take over the governed. There must be a balance or we’ll keep falling off the waterfall where there aren’t enough lifeboats below.

  6. Stemella permalink*
    April 10, 2009 8:43 am

    Jesus kicks the Pope’s ass

    • cometman permalink*
      April 10, 2009 9:03 am

      Ha! That was great.

  7. cometman permalink*
    April 10, 2009 9:02 am

    In light of the recent overturning of the Ted Stevens indictment, people have been wondering if Don Siegelman’s case would get some attention as well. Don Siegelman himself recently had to ask to see if his case would be reviewed. Well guess what, according to this post, it won’t be. Or at least Holder isn’t in any hurry.

    Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to revamp Justice Department procedures in the wake of the prosecutorial debacle in the Ted Stevens case. But Holder said today that he is not reviewing the Justice Department’s prosecution of former Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman on corruption charges, nor other corruption cases involving Alaskan officials.

    The House Judiciary Committee has been probing allegations that the Siegelman case was politically motivated by the Bush administration. Siegelman, a Democrat, was convicted in 2006.

    “I don’t have any reviews under way at this point, but I always want to ensure that the Justice Department acts in a way that is consistent with the long tradition of this great department,” Holder said.

    Why the urgency for Stevens, but none for Siegelman? Why the double standard? At this point you have to wonder what Karl Rove, whose fingerprints are all over the Siegelman case, has on everybody in the Beltway because it sure looks like a lot of people are simply scared of him. He simply walks time and time again. RRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

    • Stemella permalink*
      April 10, 2009 11:50 am

      That sucks.

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