A Quick Cure for Racial Prejudice and Obesity
Most of the time we are running on auto pilot. Our default reactions are triggered in the unconscious levels of our minds, and executed without reflection. This is why it is impossible to modify habitual behavior by willpower alone.
‘Memory’ is a hugely ambiguous term, encompassing a multitude of mental phenomena. Psychologists recognize numerous kinds of memory, in two main categories: declarative (your last vacation) and implicit (riding a bicycle). These memory systems roughly correspond to Kahneman’s System 2 and System 1 thought processes. Implicit memory includes heuristics (like stereotypes and rules of thumb) that we use for gut reactions in the fast and un-reflective System 1 processes, for example the well-studied fear system that governs fight or flight. In other words, implicit memory includes the software that controls our automatic behavior.
This software is written without our volition by our genes and by the circumstances that buffet us as our brains develop, so it is not surprising that some of our behaviors are not what we want. If you have ever tried to give up smoking, lose weight or stop procrastinating, you know that this software is almost impossible to modify. But recent advances in our understanding of the mechanisms of memory, and recent experimental results, offer an intriguing hope.
If memories are like writing on a page, then the writing is in pencil, and when you recall a memory, the writing is partially erased, and a reinterpreted version is written back for next time. This is called reconsolidation, and happens every time you remember something. The reinterpretation is influenced by your mood and motivations at the time the memory is reconsolidated. This is why eye-witness reports are so unreliable, and why your spouse’s stories evolve in such fantastical ways with each retelling.
A New York Times article highlighting PTSD describes how drugs like propranolol and anisomycin can be used to make intentional edits during reconsolidation:
Reconsolidation is a bit like pulling up a file on your computer, rewriting the same material in a bigger, bolder font and saving it again. Disrupting reconsolidation with propranolol or another drug is akin to retrieving this document, erasing some or all of the text and then writing something new in its place.
Propranolol acts as a beta blocker, anisomycin acts as a protein synthesis inhibitor. Several other drugs with varying mechanisms have been tried for PTSD with varying efficacy. Some of the most promising are the psychedelics MDMA (Ecstasy) and LSD, which (in this application) also appear to work through the memory reconsolidation mechanism. Perhaps even microdoses of LSD could be effective, but although microdosing is increasingly trendy, this particular possibility does not yet appear to have been reported on.
Reconsolidation of implicit memory seems to be more susceptible to drugs than declarative. In particular, an experiment on fear conditioning seems to show that carefully timed doses of propranolol can mitigate the emotional impact of a memory without impairing the declarative content.
Experiments in implicit bias reveal that racial prejudice is deeply wired, even in you. This puts it in the implicit memory category. So can it be modified using the same drug-interference-with-reconsolidation technique that works on the fear system? Yes it can! Here’s a link to the study.
Evolution is famous for re-purposing a single mechanism for multiple uses, so what other implicit functions might be susceptible to reconsolidation interference? Obesity could be said to be a memory, if it is true that a set point for your weight is stored somewhere in your body. This set point is notoriously difficult to change, except that it seems to be possible to raise it by dieting or having children. But neurons are involved, so it may also be possible to change the set point with reconsolidation-influencing drugs.
Indirect evidence in favor of this surmise comes from studies noting that some propranolol-like drugs are associated with weight gain, but this evidence is weak because weight variation is reported in trials of all sorts of drugs. These reports normally treat the weight gain as an unfortunate side-effect; differently constructed experiments are needed to investigate whether it is possible to intentionally reprogram the set-point with reconsolidation-modification drugs.