Have you ever had an experience you wished you could just erase from your mind completely? “Yes”, probably, yet if I asked you if you learned from that experience and if it helped shaped you into the person you are today, you’d say yes again.
Still, the damaging memories that traumatic events and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can inflict upon the psyche feel different. Their detrimental effects outweigh the utility of any life experience you gained from the events.
This is a paradoxical situation for the person hoping to improve their mental capabilities, at least initially. Typically, when we think of enhancing mental performance, we think of sharpening memory, not dulling it. Now, scientists are learning from how the brain processes trauma, and their insights may someday have interesting implications for mental augmentation.
Trauma-related dissociation and altered states of consciousness (TRASC)
Clinicians can assess people who experience trauma-related dissociation and altered states of consciousness (TRASC) using a four-dimensional model. This model separates symptoms caused by trauma into those that occur during times of normal waking consciousness, and those that happen during dissociative, altered states of consciousness. These are the “flashbacks” and other symptoms that you’ve heard of people with serious PTSD experiencing.
These (TRASC) symptoms traumatized people deal with happen in four dimensions: time, thought, body, and emotion. So for example, a person who is reliving a traumatic memory as if it were happening in the present is experiencing dissociation in the time dimension.
A clinician might tell that person to work to improve they way their mind works across all four dimensions of consciousness. They might advise their PTSD patient to form and strengthen safe relationships, engage in mindfulness exercises to enhance their sense of the present moment, and build their skills in tolerating stress and regulating emotion over time. However, actually doing all of those things is complicated by the instinctive fight or flight responses we feel as we try to reprogram ourselves.
Dexamethasone and fear extinction
Meanwhile, other research is showing that dexamethasone, a commonly used steroid drug taken to combat inflammation, affects how the gene fkbp5 is expressed in the brain. Fkbp5 is actually involved in the process called “fear extinction,” which causes people (and animals, too) to disassociate with highly traumatic memories—at least for a little while. Most people get past this stage, but those that don’t develop PTSD.
Now researchers are testing whether a single dose of dexamethasone in the emergency room after an injury or accident can prevent PTSD from developing. Scientists have already found that humans with different versions of fkbp5 exhibited specific differences in PTSD symptoms related to extinction learning, especially the inability to concentrate or sleep, or hyperarousal.
So, what does all of this mean for people who are not experiencing TRASC symptoms, but want to improve their own capabilities? We’ve already seen that inflammation is related to many disorders, and that various nootropics have anti-inflammation components. It’s possible that we are already influencing our memory formation process with our stacks—and if they’re working well, we’re nudging them in the right direction. Meanwhile, as scientists learn more about how not to form overly vivid memories that we can recall on demand (or against our will) we can also learn how to more effectively form the memories we do want to keep—and in the end, that’s most memories for most of us.