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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 5

Erasing Painful Memories: Drug and Behavioral Therapies Will Help Us Forget Toxic Thoughts

The caustic imprint of a traumatic memory may fade or vanish with new drug and behavioral therapies



Fredrik Broden

The rat is on a carousel with clear plastic sides, rotating slowly in a small room. As it looks out through the plastic, it sees markings on the walls of the room from which it can determine its position. At a certain location it receives a foot shock—or, in experimenters’ jargon, a negative reinforcement.* When that happens, the rat turns sharply around and walks tirelessly in the opposite direction, so it never reaches that same place in the room again. It will do this to the point of exhaustion.

Question: How do you get the rat to stop walking? Note that just turning off the shock will not suffice, because the rat will not allow itself to enter the danger zone. The rat needs an intervention that helps it forget its fear or that overrides its response with a competing signal of safety.

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