Kiss Addiction Relapse Goodbye … With a Little ‘Forgetfulness’?

“Unless we remember, we cannot understand,” the writer E.M. Forster said, and for the philosopher Aristotle, memory was “the scribe of the soul.” Now, new research developments suggest that forgetfulness may have its benefits, too — maybe most especially for those considering addiction treatment and a way to prevent relapse.

Remembering Past Failures Actually Decreases Self-Control

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology calls into question the conventional wisdom that success depends at least to a certain degree on recalling our past failures with a view to avoiding them in the future. Researchers from Boston College, the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt University found, on the contrary, that at least when the lesson in question is self-control, test subjects were less likely to exhibit self-control when reminded of their past failures at exercising it. Recollections of past successes, in contrast, contributed to more self-controlled decisions and behavior. For instance, in one of a number of experiments conducted over four years, test subjects recalled times when they were tempted to splurge on an expensive and unnecessary item, and either did or did not refrain from making the purchase. Some participants were asked to provide two recollections; others were instructed to list 10. After listing these recollections, participants then had to imagine an ensuing trip to the mall and what amount of credit card debt they would be willing to incur on an item they wanted to buy. Participants who recalled two past failures or more — participants who had to list 10 such recollections found it harder to remember instances of demonstrated self-control— were notably more willing to indulge in riskier consumer behavior, taking out a greater amount of credit card debt. These results led to the conclusion in a paper titled, “Haunts or Helps From the Past: Understanding the Effect of Recall on Current Self-Control,” that people show more self-control in their present consumption patterns when they are easily able to recall past instances of self-control. “For example, when people recall two past successes at self-control (e.g., instances when they resisted spending money on unnecessary items), these instances come to mind easily. It is relatively easy for everyone to think of two such successes. This ease of recall makes people believe that that they are good at self-control, they are the kind of person who can resist temptations, and since people usually want to be consistent with their views of themselves, they restrain again in tempting situations in the present,” the lead author of the study, Dr. Hristina Nikolova, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, said in an August 2015 news release announcing the results of her team’s research.

Treating Addiction by Erasing Drug-Related Memories

If these findings from the world of business marketing seem tangential to the world of addiction recovery, just ask anyone with a substance use disorder: they’ll be quick to tell you how lingering memories of drug or alcohol use are common triggers of relapse and one of the greatest obstacles to long-term abstinence and sobriety. And current research into new avenues of addiction treatment may now be on the cusp of erasing these memory-stored triggers once and for all. A study published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute details how a single injection of the drug candidate blebbistatin (“blebb”) prevents memory-triggered relapse of methamphetamine use in animal trials. Blebb was shown to disrupt the work of a molecular protein in the brain known as nonmuscle myosin II (NMII), which supports the storage of drug-related memories. Disrupting NMII thus in essence destroys the part of the brain’s hard drive that contains all of those reminders of past failures at exerting self-control. “What makes myosin II such an exciting therapeutic target is that a single injection of blebbistatin makes methamphetamine-associated memories go away, along with dendritic spines, the structures in the brain that store memory,” said research associate Erica Young, a member of the Scripps research team, in a news release of its findings. Whether such medically administered “forgetfulness” will be a safe, effective treatment for human test subjects with meth addiction remains to be seen; to what extent it will work for other substance use disorders also remains an open question. But for people with substance use disorders whose memories of poor self-control can be a source of ongoing torment in the form of multiple relapses, these findings suggest that a combination of medical and cognitive behavioral therapies for managing and even erasing such memories is not far off. That may be the one thing they need to hear in order to get treatment for an addiction.  

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