“Researchers have now directly observed what happens inside a brain learning that kind of emotionally charged response. In a new study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team at the University of Southern California was able to visualize memories forming in the brains of laboratory fish, imaging them under the microscope as they bloomed in beautiful fluorescent greens. From earlier work, they had expected the brain to encode the memory by slightly tweaking its neural architecture. Instead, the researchers were surprised to find a major overhaul in the connections.
What they saw reinforces the view that memory is a complex phenomenon involving a hodgepodge of encoding pathways. But it further suggests that the type of memory may be critical to how the brain chooses to encode it — a conclusion that may hint at why some kinds of deeply conditioned traumatic responses are so persistent, and so hard to unlearn.
‘It may be that what we’re looking at is the equivalent of a solid-state drive’ in the brain, said co-author Scott Fraser, a quantitative biologist at USC. While the brain records some types of memories in a volatile, easily erasable form, fear-ridden memories may be stored more robustly, which could help to explain why years later, some people can recall a memory as if reliving it, he said.”