Gaurav Gupta

Partner, Yog Capital Limited (Investment Banking)


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Can we replace chosen memories, to have a richer life experience?

Elizabeth Loftus' TEDtalk on "The fiction of memory" shows how memory is unreliable and can be tinkered with for better or worse life experiences.

While ethical questions remains, I want to debate if it is at all possible to change memories and interpretations of known life events, for a better life experience. And what are the available methods to do that? What are the new possible methods to do that?

I recently saw a BBC documentary on Sex offenders and how the laws seem to indicate that they are nearly incurable, perhaps this research has application there. Or with the victims?

The research showed possibilities in alcoholism and this might apply to other undesirable behaviour.

Another issue if how reversible might this kind of treatment (if it were to evolve) be? How do you prevent it's use by marketers etc who want to influence people en masse.

  • Sep 29 2013: If I may, tell me how a memory is real?
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    Sep 29 2013: In my perspective, with non-scientific point of view, people can interpret some bad memories into lessons generating knowledge and power through self-summary and self-ecouragement , which benefit your future with more good memories in life at last. We have this Chinese saying:
    “He knows best what good is who has endured evil”;
    “Misfortunes tell us what fortune is”; “
    "No sweet without sweat”.
  • Sep 30 2013: You say, "And yet we do. We forget things all the time (thankfully). We are even capable of forgetting the name of someone we know quite well, if we encounter them unexpectedly and in an unfamiliar context. " The school bus driver couldn't consciously recall the license plate characters but could under hypnosis. As I said, the problem isn't in our loss of memory but the recall -- raising it to consciousness (or relating it to the ego).

    You say, "Memory isn't actually "stored" anywhere. Brain science shows that memory is closely related to brain activity used for imagining and problem-solving. In other words, it's largely a creative process."
    I suggest you return what-ever "brain science" books you purchased for a refund. Back to the school bus issue, so you are saying that the bus driver, under hypnosis, revealed the characters of the license plate via some creative or problem solving process? Hmmmm. Nah, I don't think that is a reasonable conclusion based upon actual brain or the science of the individual human psyche.

    End of this missive.
  • Sep 30 2013: Part 1 continued: If the unconscious does not exist, then where is memory stored and made available to recall by raising it to consciousness (relating to the ego)? How did the bus driver recall an obscure license plate number under hypnosis following the kidnapping of his school bus loaded with children a couple of decades ago? How do we explain the apparent validity of lie detectors or the use of word-association tests to uncover psychological neurosis or complex with otherwise unknowable and unconscious cause?

    Para 1 Part 2; You continue: "...where memories are "permanently embedded" in slots, the way you can add memory to a laptop?" The human memory is infinitely grander in complex, function, process, and scope than any computer. While the laptop is, at one extreme, the storage bin of series of 1s and 0s, the human memory is able to record detail, value, logic, intuitions, and synthesize. There are archetypally founded memories, ones we are born with, unless you are under the opinion that all knowledge and memory is acquired and stored from birth. There's also the collective unconscious where memory's may be part of the group, a network, a culture, or civilization in general. And there is plenty of scientific evidence to support this fact.

    You say, "Only there's no science to back that up, and a lot of common sense to say it's a ridiculous notion." What is ridiculous is your assumption that you know all you need to know about the individual human psyche to sufficiently conclude as you have. Are you a computer engineer or programmer?

    You say, "If memories were "permanently embedded in the unconscious" then none of us would ever forget anything."
    The problem isn't in the ability to memorize -- a process outside of our will, but in the recall. Sometimes hypnosis is required. See the school bus kidnapping story above,
    End part 2. More to follow
  • Sep 30 2013: The talk by Elizabeth Loftus gives me the impression that Ms Loftus' ethics are very different from my own.

    For just one example, the way she talks about "planting" memories gives the impression that this process is repeatable and reliable, whereas I strongly suspect that many of her subjects do not fully integrate the false memories, and that the resulting memories vary a great deal from person to person.

    Her suggestion that parents use this technique with their children reveals her very limited focus. Inevitably, the children will become aware that one or more of their memories have been implanted, and they will then mistrust their own memories, as well as mistrust their parents. The net effect will be negative, not positive. Using Santa Claus as part of her argument is egregious, not funny.

    Ms. Loftus gives the impression that all memories are unreliable, fragile and subject to manipulation. That is just not true, and I suspect that she knows that. I am sure that Ms. Loftus relies on her own memory as much or more than I rely on mine.

    You say that ethical questions remain. IMO, Ms. Loftus has largely ignored ethics with respect to her work. If implanting memories becomes an acceptable part of any kind of therapy, it would be impossible to draw a line where some uses of this technique are not acceptable. Her talk very clearly demonstrated the dangers of implanted memories.

    Ms. Loftus may understand the fragility of memory, but her skills do not extend to critical thinking about the implications of her work and her talk.
  • Sep 30 2013: Part 1 of your first paragraph challenges the existence of the “unconscious”. I don’t have to “believe” that there is an unconscious at all. I am convinced of the existence without a doubt based upon considerable scientific evidence. To prevent exceeding the legal response character length, I first suggest you refer to Wikipedia’s description: . Should that not be sufficient for you to understand my position on the existence of the “unconscious” please refer to the extensive writing on the subject in “The Principles Of Psychology” Vols. 1 & 2 of Harvard Philosophy professor William James. Both volumes are available on Kindle from Should this not help, I suggest. You may read the extensive volumes (> 20 Volumes) of material by Swiss Psychiatrist and Professor Carl G. Jung, Ph.D., M.D. And the correspondence between Jung and Theoretical physicist and one of the founders of Quantum Physics (Nobel Prize Winner in Physics). Perhaps you can acquire some appreciation for the subject by reading some Freud. Professor William James work was published by William Holt and later by Dover Publications in New York. Jung’s (and Jung’s/Pauli’s Collaborative) work was published by the Princeton University Press. A sizable amount of reud’s work I believe was published by the University of Chicago. None of those prestigious publishing houses were known for printing fantasy or fiction in the name of science. Since the unconscious is unconscious and therefore, by definition, unknowable via direct observation it is difficult to define except analytically, by what it does and/or doesn’t do. Analytical scientific method is just as valid as any other menthod. If one can accept the existence and differentiate sub-atomic particles that are discovered and catalogued via analytical method, then the research and application of the unconscious may also be valid scientifically. Right?
    Part 2 follows.
  • Sep 30 2013: Life experiences break down into memories and perceptions to these memories. Changing memories seem counterintuitive as what you are doing is essentially changing your perception on a certain aspect of your life. It seems like treating the symptoms without addressing the actual diseases themselves and you might as well call this brainwashing.
  • Sep 30 2013: I've often wondered if people with depression, post tramatic stress, addiction etc, would be relieved of their problems if they had amnesia. I think in many cases it would.
    It would be interesting to know what would be more benificial, removal of bad memories, or adding false good memories.
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      Sep 30 2013: Elizabeth Loftus in this TED talk showed an interesting result, by introducing a new memory of "getting sick after drinking vodka" and participants show an aversion to vodka.
      Similarly, a traumatic experience can may be, be replaced with a better interpretation of that event. Ofcourse, there are multiple implications: Life is richer with those experiences, a traumatic experience can lead to better detection and coping ability with other traumatic experiences?, or in some cases people convert trauma and tragedy into triumph and go on to help others. Will the world have an opportunity if we were to reduce the effect of trauma by introducing more benign experiences.
      • Sep 30 2013: In the case of alcohol abuse or post traumatic stress, I believe this is why we have mental support so that those who have gone through a devastating experience can be empowered to eventually come to reflect the experience as positive (as in an appreciation of what they are able to learn through the experience and how this positivity changes their perception of life still to be had). The difference is a motivation stemmed from within versus an outside forced intervention.
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          Sep 30 2013: Hi Tina, I was surprised that one of the findings in Elizabeth Loftus' studies was, it was psychotherapy which led to worsening of understanding of past issues. Not meaning to say that would be true in all the cases, but from the studies it seems sometimes things just go from bad to worse in therapy.
          Sorry for not knowing much more than that technically. But I read the paper issued by Loftus in which they introduced memories of "feeling sick after drinking vodka" as an experience that happened before the age of sixteen, and that had a positive impact.

          I was imagining a situation, where someone dealing with childhood trauma, is given memories to reinterpret the experience, (not as whose responsibility, but just as to experience, a neutral benign experience). Perhaps, decades of therapy could be saved and that person could move on. Again, there is a lot to discuss about the side effects, tinkering with the direction in which a persons life is headed, responsible use, and even before all that, long term effectiveness.
      • Sep 30 2013: I still imagine the approach prone to much abuse.

        I can see how erasing that particular traumatic experience from one's childhood can rescue decades of life wasted away, but what if the problem is chronic throughout the person's life? What if all the other problems in life stem from this attitude that that one experience imposed on this person in the first place? What if the person goes through another traumatic experience? Are we to alter the memory again? I am still critical as I do not see an intrinsic personal growth as one of the outcomes.

        If psychotherapy is worsening the situation, then perhaps we should re-examine our model for psychotherapy, that therapies do not become a model to externally enforce. A clinician-patient relationship inevitably puts the latter at a lower status. At the same time, perhaps it is the popular belief and the societal demeaning of psychotherapies that create the notion that "something is wrong with you", which stimulates resistance and puts pressure on the person in need. Perhaps this is why I use the term mental support, perhaps there are ways we can integrate into their lives as friends or mentors.

        I think that it may be hard for me understand some of these tough decisions some must have gone through. I embrace autonomy; I see advises as suggestions and possibilities but the ultimate decision lies within me.
  • Sep 30 2013: Sort of reminds me of a recent communication lecture. The professor suggested that if 5 people viewed or were participants in a motor vehicle accident, there were 5 different accidents.
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    Sep 29 2013: Memories trigger emotional states that the body was in when they were stored. A memory is not just a hazy picture.
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    Sep 29 2013: Another way of abating some extreme psychological traumas is mesmerization, I think.
  • Sep 29 2013: I say memories are NOT replaceable they are permanently embedded in the unconscious. Perceptions or the recall of the memory is modified in the unconscious and in some limited way, modified by force of will but not the actual memory itself. The path between where the memory is stored and it's presentation in consciousness or perception (relating to the Ego) can modify the stored information/data depending upon the individual's needs, fears, prejudices, hates, desires, interpersonal attraction, psychological type, and attitude, I.e is the individual objective oriented or oriented toward the experience. Certainly the perception of a memory may be modified simply by shifting the individual's perspective or an improvement or advancement of their individual adult maturity. But the data stored in memory is not alterable by will as it is unconscious. The only tools we have to work with regarding memory are our perception, ego, and perspective.
    • Sep 30 2013: "permanently embedded in the unconscious"?

      Where and how exactly would that be? Do you believe there a physical place called "the unconscious" where memories are "permanently embedded" in slots, the way you can add memory to a laptop?

      Only there's no science to back that up, and a lot of common sense to say it's a ridiculous notion.

      If memories were "permanently embedded in the unconscious" then none of us would ever forget anything.

      And yet we do. We forget things all the time (thankfully). We are even capable of forgetting the name of someone we know quite well, if we encounter them unexpectedly and in an unfamiliar context.

      Memory isn't actually "stored" anywhere. Brain science shows that memory is closely related to brain activity used for imagining and problem-solving. In other words, it's largely a creative process.
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    Sep 29 2013: Gaurav, I think you are more likely to find people in TED Conversations who are able to discuss the merits, ethics, or risks of such interventions IF the technology were readily available than to find experts here who really know the limits of what is now scientifically possible.

    If I understand your question, you are looking specifically for expert knowledge about which methods are either currently available or on the horizon.

    Or are you asking the question of whether it would improve quality of life to substitute artificial memories for actual life experience? An analogous question might be whether it would lead to a richer life if we skipped the process of learning and just had knowledge placed into our heads by a third party.