Many sci-fi thrillers often incorporate some sort of scene where a perfectly sane individual gets snatched away by an alien and then brainwashed into serving a ruthless leader hell-bent on conquering the universe. The idea of disrupting the mind and forcing people to believe or forget something have been a topic of great interests to researchers who wants to figure out the most wonderful organ in a human body.
People throughout history have developed “techniques” that can supposedly brainwash someone, or some sort of manipulative form of psychology to get the person to do as they are told. Not all developments in the field of psychology have a bad underlying tone, however.
Take for instance, mankind also developed psychological methods that can help individuals cope with pain, sorrow, and the inevitable—death. Fear is another human emotion that many people want to overcome, and there are methods for doing just that. However, overcoming and completely forgetting fear are totally different ideas.
Thomas Agren, a doctoral candidate at Uppsala University, recently demonstrated that fear can be disrupted during the brain’s reconsolidation of long term memory. When the brain conjures up a memory, it doesn’t pull up what actually happened instantaneously. Rather, there’s a consolidation process that follows to stabilize the memory. Therefore, it is possible to trick the mind into restructuring its long term memory bank during that reconsolidation process.
Agren performed an experiment in which test subjects were allowed to develop fear with a picture that gave them an electric shock every time the subjects looked at it. The subjects were then tested to see whether or not the picture stimulated fear by showing the picture without the shock.
In the experimental group, the subjects had their reconsolidation process disrupted with repeated showings of the picture without shock. The control group, however, were allowed to have their reconsolidation process completed before the picture were, too, shown without shock.
The findings in the experiment were that the fear induced by the picture/electric shock faded away, because the reconsolidation process was disrupted. Experimental subjects were then placed into an MRI-scanner to show that traces of the fear memory had indeed disappeared from the part of the brain that normally stored fearful memories.
If you want to study a field where you can apply your sci-fi brilliance, then perhaps psychology will reward you with just that.