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Scientists treat anxiety by implanting false memories
A new study suggests that it’s possible to replace anxiety-producing unpleasant memories with new ones implanted under hypnosis.
Memories have a funny way of changing as time goes by. For many people, the unpleasant memories drop away, leaving behind only remembrances that produce a warm nostalgia. For, others, notably those who suffer from chronic anxiety, the opposite may happen: Painful experiences reach out from the past with such intensity that they ravage the present day, making it impossible to overcome the emotional damage they inflict. We also know memory can be suggestible. Two psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University have been exploring the potential benefits of implanting false positive memories in anxiety sufferers to see if they can be freed from their difficult pasts. Veronika V. Nourkova and Darya A. Vasilenko have just released a paper that suggests this can indeed work if it’s augmented with hypnosis.
Assessing anxiety and memories that trigger it
The researchers recruited 120 volunteers—73 female and 47 male. Each individual was assessed to identify those with a greater tendency to anxiety. The study employed Taylor’s Manifest Anxiety Scale (TMAS), getting subjects’ reaction to a set of 50 statements that reveal their emotional state, and in particular, their “anxiety proneness,” as the study puts it. Scores can range from 0 to 50, and anyone who scored 21 or above was deemed to be demonstrating clinically significant levels of anxiety.
Next, anxious subjects were asked to relate memories of past events that still bothered them with the instructions: “Recollect, in as much detail as possible, three episodes from your past that represent to the maximum degree your personal traits that force you to be worried and anxious.”
Dealing with memories
The 120 participants were divided into groups that could work on neutralizing their troubling memories—or not—using four different approaches:
- The Discussion group attempted to work verbally through the memories.
- The Hypnosis group was hypnotized and directed to imagine pleasant locations on a multi-sensory level, for example, imagining a beach and smelling the sea and hearing birds. Afterward, they were played soothing natural sounds.
- The Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group was hypnotized and instructed to imagine re-experiencing their uncomfortable memory, at which time they were guided by hypnotist Vasilenko to a positive outcome.
- The Control group listened to sounds of nature for 35 minutes.
The tests were repeated twice at weekly intervals for three sessions in all, one per unpleasant memory.
Two examples cited in the study
”ZL,” from the Discussion group
One of the three past incidents that 45-year-old male ZL related to the researchers was this one:
Six years ago, I was invited to rehearse the role in opera. I was invited by a director personally. And there was another singer who was rehearsing the same role in parallel with me. I sacrificed so much effort to make my best, to be part of the premiere. After all, the uncertainty remained until the last day. The cast composition was not announced. This, perhaps, was the moment when I insisted on looking at the schedule and realized that I was assigned to being a cover. I felt crushed; I couldn’t cope with being rejected. I trudged to my make-up room almost crying. Five minutes later the director came in smiling and enthusiastic about the premiere. I was not able to control myself. I jumped up and pushed the director out the door. In a moment, I lost not only my part in the premiere but everything else, too.
In the Discussion group, ZL revisited this memory and attempted to neutralize it by working his way through it:
It would have been better if I’d understood that the director did not want to insult me, but in fact, he worried about the success of the performance. Being the cover was not actually such a disaster. I should have politely thanked him for his advice and guidance. I should have endured the indignity. And then, perhaps, later, I would have been transferred to the main cast ... Even now I could clearly see the surprised face of the director.
”AS”, from the Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group
AS is a 41-year-old woman who told this story from her past:
I was in my second grade. There was a kind of concert at the school. All parents were there. Children stood in a circle and performed one after the other. I wanted to make my father proud of me. I wanted it so much. I was absolutely sure that I’d learned a poem by heart. I felt as if all stared at me ... and suddenly I was speechless. I opened and closed my mouth and I could not say anything. I did not live up to expectations. I had to perform well. Dad in such a case would be proud of me. But I did not succeed. It seemed to me that my father was very unhappy with me.
Under hypnosis using the Ericksonian conversational method, AS was guided to a revised version of the incident:
DV: Could you see the place? Who is there? What do you see around you?
AS: It is loud and hot, and stuffy. Many people around. Parents, teachers...My dad gently pushed me into the circle.
DV: Are you dressed in a uniform?
AS: Yes, a brown dress and a white apron. All girls are festively dressed. I can’t recognize anybody except Vicky. She starts telling a poem. Everybody is applauding. It is my turn now. I get up and start speaking loudly and boldly. About friends ... Words are forgotten.
DV: How would you like to behave from this moment? Try to live through the situation doing your best.
AS: Ok. I am starting “friends, friends.” I cannot remember how to proceed. I’m looking around and make curtsy. I feel mischief and fun. I say “Dear all, I am so sorry I forgot the poem. I can tell you the story in prose”.
DV: How do people react? Your Dad? How are you feeling?
AS: Everyone is smiling and laughing. Dad is laughing, too. I take my place. Dad leans toward me and whispers, “Honey, recite the poem for me at home.”
A few days, and then four months later…
Shortly after the tests, the subjects were again tested with TMAS, and about four months later tested once more to see if their tendencies toward anxiety had changed. Two groups, Discussion and Memory Implantation in Hypnosis, were also tested at that later date to ascertain how strongly their altered memories had been implanted.
All groups MTAS scores from beginning to end (Credit: Nourkova/Vasilenko)
The Discussion and Control group showed no significant change in their TMAS scores either immediately or in the final tests. Also, the Discussion group could easily recall the memory-editing they’d done—their original unpleasant recollections persisted.
The hypnosis group exhibited a reduction in anxiety during the testing just after the experiments, but that effect was gone four months later—in fact, they were more anxious than when they’d started!
For the Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group, though, anxiety had been reduced and remained that way four months later. These subjects also couldn’t differentiate false memories from real ones, meaning that their memory implants had stayed in place.
This result suggests that implanted memories can stick and that they can help with anxiety. Research Digest, however, cautions that “the findings should be considered preliminary and the explanation for the effects is quite speculative. There was no direct measure of self-esteem, for instance, and while the participants’ initial average levels of anxiety were on the cusp of being considered clinically significant, this was not a clinical sample with diagnosed anxiety problems.”
And of course, there are the obvious risks—and ethical considerations—in implanting false memories. What could possibly go wrong? (See Total Recall.)
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.