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Singing the praises of reconsolidation (and shouting about asparagus)

Having studied Psychology in various forms for many years, I have often questioned the merit of some theories. It seemed to me that the psychological mechanisms that we investigate are often far removed from natural behaviour, and I shared the view of many that my field has a tendency to be reductionist – simplifying complex feelings and behaviours to little more than cogs in a machine.

In fact, in my cynicism I have at times wondered Memorywhether some reported parts of behaviour actually exist. One example, taken from research on the topic of memory, is a process referred to as ‘reconsolidation’. According to reconsolidation theory even a firm, long-term memory can be tampered with, possibly changing the memory altogether. Reconsolidation centres upon the process of ‘consolidation’ where a memory trace is converted from short- to long-term memory.

For reconsolidation to occur an existing memory must first be reactivated by a similar experience. It is this reactivation which renders the memory unstable. The unstable memory can then be modified by new experiences/information and undergoes a second consolidation, or ‘reconsolidation’. It is during this stage that alterations to the original memory can be made. The extent to which the reconsolidated memory persists depends upon the properties of the similar experience, but research suggests that the changes can be permanent in some circumstances.

My initial scepticism regarding this process was two-fold. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that an established long-term memory could be affected by showing me another similar piece of information. Could the memory of my parent’s address be altered like this? Surely this was absurd? Secondly, it seemed to me that reconsolidation theory may have been a scientific explanation of confusion brought about by knowledge of two similar and conflicting pieces of information – something I’m sure we have all experienced before.

Until recently, I hadn’t experienced anything in my own life that I could attribute to the process of reconsolidation, but I’m pleased to report that recently my stand-point on this has changed somewhat. Whilst living in Germany and attempting to learn the language, my German friends would often ask me to tell them an English word for something. My prior conclusions would have led me to believe that I could not possibly forget an English word that I have known all my life, simply by holding the equivalent German word in my head at the same time. However, one day whilst in the supermarket my German friend pointed to ‘Weisse Spargel’, which I knew in German and English. When he asked me for the English word, all I could do was stare blankly and mutter ‘Weisse Spargel’. It took me several hours of frustrated thinking before I eventually shouted out ‘ASPARAGUS’ later that evening!

asparagus

In conclusion, I believe it is probable that repeatedly seeing the Weisse Spargel in the context of a German supermarket, over many visits reactivated my memory of the word asparagus. This reactivation rendered my initial knowledge temporarily unstable, and upon reconsolidation my knowledge was re-weighted to the German, rather than the English word. I can discount the possibility of being confused in this case because my knowledge of the word asparagus was not something I could mix up with something else. The information was there, but something very real had changed that made it more difficult to access.

I’m pleased to report that, although this was not an isolated incident, there were no lasting side effects, and I have not (yet) permanently lost my ability to speak English.

To find out more, please see this review by Thomas Agren.

Post by Gemma Barnacle

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