Regarding the Cambridge research, a few things come to mind:
1) there is seemingly no real substantive evidence, that I have seen, that a sustained period of long term potentiation took place. There are requisite amounts of neuroplasticity involved in the process of creating long term memories. This process must occur during the types of memories used for erasure experimentation for it to be valid. However, LTP is somewhat accelerated in the acquisition of potentially life-threatening and/or stressful memories, after all, your life could depend on it! LTP is more prevalent when experiences of abuse/cumulative trauma occur slowly and progressively over a period of time, say months or years. This is because many of these types of abuse are often not sufficient enough, in and of themselves, to form a trauma. It is the collective and repetitive nature that leads to developing trauma.
The process of LTP evolves progressively during the development of all forms of memory and the more emotional the memories, the greater the potential effect. This is especially so when love, or its apparent absence, is a factor. In the developing stages of loving relationships, LTP occurs in positive ways that affect the emotion of love, which overrides any negative feelings at that moment. For example, if there were any form of trauma or abuse affecting us, at that moment, falling in love can override those negative emotions. Unfortunately, the opposite can happen if the relationship falters unexpectedly. The presence of the emotion of love also helps to alleviate the feelings of uncertainty that often accompanies life. The absence of love, following a break-up, can unleash a torrent of unwanted emotions. It is the desire to avoid these strong emotions, that often leads people to stay in a toxic relationship, leading to a roller-coaster of love and abuse! This creates an illusion, "better the devil you know," that allows us to rationalise the experience. In the case of physical relational abuse, it is this love/hate roller coaster effect that adds difficulty to both the problem and the solution. The victim is often falling in and out of love in the recurring cycles of violence. Falling out, because of abuse (I hate you) and in (I love you), following the outpouring of regret. the, "I won't do it again" promises that follow the abuse!
2) that there is unlikely to be any strong (negative) emotional connection/association to the memories tested, e.g. a coffee cup etc. Some cases studies, where the testing of patients with PTSD occurred, and with the objective of erasing memories, have been largely inconclusive? In research into combat situations, it showed that an average of 1 in every 47 combat troops will go on to develop PTSD. This gives us a clue as to the extreme complexity of both the nature of post-traumatic stress and the brain's in which it occurs?
3) also, the research does not appear to have been done on patients with specific love or emotional relationship issues being the reason for seeking erasure? Some of the practical reasons for this are mentioned below. However, one thing that sticks out, is, that in a love relationship, it is hardly ever the case of erasing a single memory but maybe thousands of them! It is rarely and fortunately so, ever the case that one has to address all instances of trauma/abuse to affect a resolution to relational trauma. However, it is questionable, maybe ethically so, whether erasing such memories (assuming one could) would be a viable or wise option?
To better understand the mechanisms behind psychological issues, we need to know a little more about memories themselves. Memories are mostly stored or adapted/maladapted at synapses, albeit there is some evidence of memory traces within the cytoplasm (cell body/DNA), perhaps aiding natural selection? One reason it can be difficult to erase memories, specifically those related to emotional relationships, is simply because it is not just one memory. As stated above, in almost every case, it is thousands of memories and many have connections to things e.g. objects/gifts, places and people. There will be aspects of semantic, episodic (declarative) memory and some habitual, procedural (implicit) memory, e.g. memories of driving and of being criticised while doing so. So, seeing or doing things, going to places, meeting people that had associations with "that person" have the potential to stimulate many of these stored memories! And, of course, the emotional associations related to that memory! It is also important to know, that you are not necessarily activating a memory of that person but, potentially, any number of engrams (neural substrates of memories) that facilitate the recall of associated feelings one may experience during a toxic relationship! What we aim to achieve, is the appeasement of an unwanted feeling that reminds us of the better moments of that relationship. Essentially, that means the moments within that relationship that a person experienced the sense of love or the absence of fear!
A potential client (X) asked me if I could erase the memories of lost love, so, as best as I could, I explained the complexity of it. She said, a friend of hers (Y) had gone to a hypnotist and he had erased the memory of her former lover. One day when Y saw him, she said to X: "I didn’t recognise him." So I asked her a question, if Y didn't recognise him, then how did she know she saw him? Of course, it's totally illogical, how do you not recognise someone you don’t know or can’t remember? I would call that memory repression and the awareness of the non-recognition is merely the stimulation of the repressed memory! A better question to have asked the friend, was, were there any emotions, then or later?
So, let us focus on the forgetting of something, be it the object of a failed love relationship or some other reason e.g. a pet. When we lose someone, whether it is a consequence of a relationship breakdown or through death, the resultant emotion is grief. We experience this in the form of, denial, anger, bargaining (what-ifs) and depression and, finally, acceptance. Of course, grief is not a linear process but in its final phase, acceptance, the emotional memories are reconsolidated to form a new perspective of an altered reality! And this reaching of a new reality should be the objective of grief counselling or any other form of emotional therapy. When working with someone coming to terms with a lost loved one, or someone once loved, the therapist will have goals and markers of the client's progress. Therapy for grief is not a shortcut or circumvention of the grieving process, contextually, grief is not happening as it should and the aim is to help do so.
The objective of therapeutic interventions is to assist the client so that their grief evolves more naturally. However, there is one vital difference between these two types of loss. i.e. a relationship breakdown and death. When someone dies, acceptance is in coming to terms with the fact that they are not coming back. For sure, life will likely never be the same without them but we find ways to go forward with this new reality. However, when it comes to a relationship breakdown, they are not dead and therefore they could come back, if only perceptively! To the degree we want that outcome, yet knowing it likely will not happen, is potentially the degree to which we seek to forget (erase the memories). But I question if this is the healthy choice, should we go through life attempting to forget everything that was unpleasant or emotionally painful? Personally, I do not think this is the correct way of dealing with life.
Generally speaking, people don't want to forget someone, as much as they want to dissociate themselves from the emotional turmoil and pain they experience when remembering them. Especially, any of the memory engrams relative to the lost love object. At certain times, life is something akin to an emotional roller coaster, so the better we become at dealing with life's ebb and flow; the better life gets! It is mostly through an experience we learn our greatest lessons but what would we learn, if every time we faced a challenging moment, we simply chose to forget? That said it can be a useful strategy to occasionally forget to remember and we often do this unwittingly. For example, a friend lets us down, they forget our birthday or we forget an appointment. We can choose to remember that and risk spoiling the relationship or we can choose to forget to remember. Of course, we don't actually forget because the memory is still there. What we actually do is forgive, we make allowances etc. This equates to a derivation of, there but for the grace of God go I!
So, when working with a client on issues like forgetting, a 'him' or 'her,' I like to explore other options i.e., is there a better way? Mostly this is because when a person faces this type of situation, they are looking for answers. If forgetting is the only or best option, it suggests that there may be some deeper emotional issues at play. Also, it poses questions for the therapist, e.g. is this the first experience or just another one of many? It is also not uncommon to find there are similarities in the way they deal with other emotional areas of life. Not so much in the context of them wanting to forget or erase memories. But rather, in the context of struggling with their emotions relating to anything that potentially involves love or close relationships. For example, a lover, relative, friend, colleague or boss etc. So, in situations like this, I focus on looking for other areas of their life where things are not going well or could be better?
Having explored all the options, and assuming it did not work, forgetting someone, as in, nullifying the emotional attachment, is an option. But what we are actually attempting to do is to stimulate long term depression - LTD - (weakening of synaptic transmission). The most effective way to do this, is by stimulating new or existing memories, via long term potentiation - LTP - (strengthening of synaptic transmission). However, experientially I have found that once you help the client over their emotional hurdle(s), forgetting someone is much less of an issue (natural LTD). Mostly this is a consequence of the absence of the sensory stimulus that activated the memory they want to forget! Sometimes this need to forget someone is associated with a certain desire to lose something of themselves! Usually, this is something that is an uncomfortable or unpleasant memory that manifests from within their deeper self? And often, it is saying more to the client, about themselves, than it says about the lost love!
If, you have someone to forget or a memory you want to erase, why not make an appointment for a free consultation (below)? That way we can take a look at the options, perhaps even discover things from the past that are roadblocks to a happier future?