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Season 3 | Episode 4

Memory and Forgetting

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Faded photos Faded photos (ben124/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

This hour of Radiolab, a look behind the curtain of how memories are made...and forgotten.

Remembering is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process--it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added. And Oliver Sacks joins us to tell the story of an amnesiac whose love for his wife and music transcend his 7-second memory.


Painter Joe Andoe, Andrei Codrescu, Joe LeDoux, Jonah Lehrer, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, Karim Nader, Neda Pourang, Dr. Oliver Sacks and Deborah Wearing

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Rat

What is a memory? Science writer Jonah Lehrer tells us is it’s a physical thing in the brain… not some ephemeral flash. It’s a concrete thing made of matter. And NYU neuroscientist Joe LeDoux, who studies fear memories in rats, tells us how with a one shock, one tone, and ...

Comments [36]

Adding Memory

We start this section off with a question from writer Andrei Codrescu: "where do computers get their extra memory from?" And then we take it literally. Can you add memories? Dr. Elizabeth Loftus says yes. She’s a psychologist in the department of Criminology, Law and Society at ...

Comments [19]


The story of a man who’s lost everything. Clive Wearing has what Oliver Sacks calls “the most severe case of amnesia ever documented.” Clive’s wife, Deborah Wearing, tells us the story along with Oliver Sacks. And they try to understand why, amidst so much forgetting, Clive remembers two things: Music ...

Comments [31]

Comments [56]


Is this podcast on itunes? I can't seem to find it.

Nov. 01 2013 11:28 AM
Gil Zamora from San Jose, CA

As a forensic artist since 1995 I've been dealing with the memory of eyewitnesses as they try and describe the face of the perpetrator. In 1996 I made a decision to eliminate the use of reference images to create a composite sketch after reading the research done by Dr. Loftus and the work by Fisher and Geiselman. Over the years I have been impressed with the work of Dr. Wells, from Ohio University, as he explains the dangers of eyewitness misidentification. My police agency and the district attorney adopted many of the photo line-up changes suggested by his work. Now my attention has been directed to the research on done on the brain and the science behind what we think we remember. It has given me more confidence in every cognitive interview I conduct without reference images. I hope that other forensic artists and law enforcement commanders around the country listen to this episode and begin to discuss the best practices in interviewing eyewitnesses.

Oct. 29 2013 01:40 PM
Dana from Ontario, Canada

Memory is such an odd thing.

In high school a boy I knew fell down a flight of stairs and had very serious head trauma, after which he could no longer remember anything that happened before he woke up that morning, everyday, so he had to keep a diary of all the important things he did and learned that day so he could read about them later.

One day he asked to read something out loud that I had handwritten. At a specific point he stumbled because he couldn't read my handwriting, and it was the only point that happened. That made me very curious, and I figured it wasn't something important enough to write in his diary. The next day, I gave him the same writing and asked him to read it out loud, not mentioning that he'd done it the day before. His recitation was exactly the same as the day before, with no variations, one single stumble and all.

I asked him what happened if he simply didn't got to sleep one night; was he able to remember everything that happened until the next time he went to sleep? He said he never tried. Unfortunately, we weren't very close friends so I didn't talk to him again after high school. I wonder if he'd found out the effect of pulling an all-nighter, and if he ever got his memory persistence back.

Oct. 25 2013 10:15 PM
Thomas Graziosi from CT

Very fastenating commentary. Never new memories were so deep.

Jun. 28 2013 09:05 PM
Aamna Rashid from Toronto, ON

Really interesting episode! I never knew something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind could be real!! Love RadioLab. :-)

Jun. 10 2013 11:46 AM

Here's the thing. I googled "best radiolab episodes" and this came up. So I listened to it. It took me 15 minutes to realize that I had already listened to this 3 months ago. Most likely because 3 months ago I googled the same string.

Here's the memory and all it's mysteries.

Jun. 06 2013 02:52 PM

You know, I'm a big fan of documentaries and typically I would be the first to say that the best documentaries (Made for TV that is) almost always come from the BBC (Horizon amongst others comes to mind). But I have to confess that I'm literally in awe of the depth of presentation/material for this program. This stuff is so well put together that to be honest its much better than documentaries I've seen on the same subject from the BBC (stressing on "SEEN"). This program to me, has managed to paint a picture so clear in my minds eye that in many ways, its actually much more engaging and more entertaining than "Seeing" it. That first segment "Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Rat" completely blew me away.. And really got me thinking about why its necessary for the brain to always reconstruct memories from scratch. What.. does the brain "Load-Shed" for capacity issues or is it necessary for the integration of an event into our consciousness so that it can be associated with other stuff in our mind and ultimately become "YOU" (during sleep maybe..).
It really got me thinking.. and you know.. even though that segment ended on a bit of a somber note, I actually got something slightly different out of what was mentioned. Because in a sense, its actually strangely more interesting and personal that way. I mean, if we remembered events verbatim then memories would be almost like an insect trapped in amber that you can't really interact with and possibly learn from. Maybe it would have made us Spock-like where memories become nothing but sterile facts to be regurgitated on a whim or as "a matter of fact".
The fact that the memory over time becomes more about you I think, in a sense, is OK because it happened TO you.. as opposed to it happening in an ethereal space where it is simply observed.. Memories being malleable in nature makes the memory in sense "Alive" as opposed to sterile..

Needless to say, RadioLab and its presenters are awesome because I never think about this stuff typically..

Mar. 22 2013 02:10 PM
Claire from St. Louis, MO

For those out there interested in issues of memory and identity, this podcast featuring philosophy professor Carl Craver, who works with amnesia cases, is really fascinating: (Full disclosure: I conducted the interview and produced the show.) Hope some of you can listen in!

Nov. 14 2012 01:32 PM
Dan Ferguson L.Ac. from Washington state, USA

I am an acupuncturist and have found a very effective non-drug way to break or disconnect emotions from memories much like the drugs mentioned in the broadcast. It is called pstec and is available for a free download. It breaks the neural pattern that links the emotions with a pattern interrupt technique. I recommend it highly. Hope this helps someone. - Dan

Nov. 14 2012 12:36 PM

For those who have not forgotten the "Fact of the Matter" this again gets at the heart of the issue of Yellow Rain, and what was wrong with the podcast from a third party perspective.

Radiolab has so much to answer for.

Nov. 13 2012 07:28 PM

A l o h a ! To all, from the sunny slopes of Haleakala on Maui.

It is such a pleasure to look forward to 2 P.M. on Saturdays because that's when RadioLab comes on the translater station KIPM-FM (of KIPO-FM, Honolulu).
The topics are always approached in a serious, yet offbeat, manner and their fact-finding missions yield surprising results.
Like this one on...Uh, what was it on, again? Oh, oh, yeah - MEMORY. What a plastic thing the concept of mind is, consciousness is still a hotly debated issue when it comes to providing definitions, and how we flex our mnemonic muscles differs greatly also.
The Declaration of Consciousness made to allow invertebrates (such as cephalapods; octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish) to be deemed as thinking creatures with an awareness of themselves and all else implied might be a good subject for a future show.
Page Ronning

Nov. 13 2012 09:24 AM
Mr David Frewen from United states of america

Words can in no way describe what a beautiful idea it is to contemplate. I know much of my brain time will be spent on this topic and its many implications. What does this do regarding the credability of a person's recollection of something he claims he witnessed? "I swear I saw John kill his wife!" "Objection, your honor. Who can say whether or not his memory has been erased or changed."

"Honest, Dear. You don't see me in bed with Trixie, Bubbles and JoAnn. I think your memory isn't working correctly. Now please appologise to them right now while they are putting their clothes back on."

Nov. 11 2012 11:00 PM
Glynis Kinnan from Oak Park

I was very dismayed to hear a program that was based on the torture of rats. It is a moral outrage that such experiments were conducted. Then, to hear people discuss the animals' suffering with utter insouciance was chilling.

Nov. 11 2012 10:46 PM

Fantastically interesting episode! But, I'm really here for the same reason as Nick....

Does anyone know the name of that song between the first and the second section of this episode. Its jazzy and the words are like "do do dodododo do do"?

Please, oh please?!

Nov. 11 2012 10:23 PM
Luc Watelet from Rochester, NY

I second what Jon from Madison and Dierda form Vermont both say. Jon does not believe it is the memory itself that is erased by the drugs, and suggests it may be the feeling connection to the memory. Dierda raises the question about healing from PTSD: if one tempers with the memory, does one lose the benefits from healing?

I am a counselor and my specialty is to help people heal from difficult memories and rediscover their passion and aliveness. I agree that people can get further and further away from the original memory by thinking about it a lot. My goal as a counselor is healing. A memory is attached to sensations in the body. So when I ask people to tell me about the memory that is haunting, hurting, or obsessing them, I wait until they are ready to face their truth, and then I ask that they forget the actual story and experience what is going on in their body in that moment from the story they just told me.

I guide them to accept that energy by embracing it and giving it space, instead of fighting it as we usually do by fear of it. By embracing the energy, it moves and is eventually released. It is not unusual that a forgotten original story is remembered with heartfelt emotions. It is felt from the perspective of the person experiencing it at the time, not colored by those other people present. That is the difference with the memory they usually first start telling me. When we take on other people's interpretation, we typically make ourself wrong and we disconnect from ourself.

So when a piece of the original story comes to the surface, a true reconnecting with oneself happens. In my experience, nothing is more healing because it is the separation from being able to love who we are when a traumatic experience happens that is the real source of trauma, it is not the event itself. That is why we can heal. When the people I work with are able to feel for the first time the event from their own perspective at the time of the event, they are able to love themselves as never before and they can also forgive whoever else was involved. The result is a newly found freedom. What it is they find depends on what they gave up then.

I am wondering of the use of a drug to alleviate the effect of a memory. I would want to know if I could still guide people who used such a drug to find the gifts lost by a traumatic memory, or if the drug can give them back to themselves the way my work can. I suspect the original memory is not erased.

My work also tells me the memory is in the body, not in the brain. The remembering happens in the brain. So that explains why the lady with amnesia and whose doctor greeted her shaking her hand with a tack pricking her skin, reacted the next day before shaking his hand, even if she consciously did not remember ever meeting her doctor. What appears to be affected in amnesia is not the memory but aspects of the path to it. The problem is in the brain. The memory is in the body.

Nov. 11 2012 10:16 PM
Jon from Madison, WI

I don't believe that the drug you talk about erased any memory. All because the mouse didn't react to the beep does not necessarily mean it lost a memory. You may be confusing FEELINGS and memory. Just like the woman that got raped as a child. She didn't forget the memory, but her feelings about it changed. I did not read the research, but what was said on RadioLab is not convincing enough to make me believe the drug erases memory. Can someone clarify this?

Nov. 10 2012 09:55 PM

A childhood memory:cotton candy at Coney Island--spun form with no nutritional value.

Nov. 10 2012 06:49 PM
Quattrone from Carmel, IN

I never get tired of hearing the story of Clive. I suffer from an increasing forgetfulness myself, so I find his story especially compelling -- the sense that our very "humanness" can only exist through the virtue of memory. In a sense, we are what we've experienced. Without the memory of experiences, we collapse to the existence of a stone, or as Clive said -- death.

I get teary every time I hear his story.

Nov. 10 2012 04:59 PM

I loved the part when Rob Krulwich started speaking in latin.
You all remember that part right?

Nov. 10 2012 04:03 PM
dierdra from Vermont

As someone who is working diligently to heal from PTSD, I wonder about the drug that removes memory. My wonder is.... though the trauma experienced was great and has changed my life, do I really want to remove the positive things that I have learned from living through the experience and 'the healing' that has followed?

Nov. 10 2012 03:05 PM
LE from Miami from miami

What is the name of the artist that painted the pastures?

Nov. 10 2012 01:14 PM

Does anyone know the name of that song between the first and the second section of this episode. Its jazzy and the words are like "do do dodododo do do"?

Nov. 10 2012 01:10 PM
Doug Wiken from South Dakota

This program indicating that memories are recreated every time they are recalled and are also changed every time they are remembered seems to have at least one frightening consequence.

Crime witnesses told to remember and repeat their memory of a crime could have it changed every time by police or attorneys.

Nov. 10 2012 12:28 PM
adele Kearney

I wanted references to the books mentioned (at least four, I think)
IU'd rather not have my name published. I expected references.

Nov. 09 2012 09:00 PM
lenore Oaklander

you say there is a medication or a process to erace or lessen a it being used on returning soldiers with PDS?

Nov. 08 2012 09:05 PM

So basically, thousands of so called "Survivors of the Holocaust"... The more they remember, the more they are considered "Unrememberers".

Nov. 08 2012 08:27 PM
Jake from Wichita, KS

If a memory is "an act of creation," what is it being created from. What does our mind draw on in order to create?

Oct. 17 2012 10:43 AM
BC from VA

Unbelievable! I do believe your research results, but the first word that came to my mind was UNBELIEBABLE!tu

Aug. 25 2012 03:07 PM

I listen to Radiolab and video game music at work. I'm pretty sure this just crossed over. Did anyone notice at 28:21 a 5 second clip from Chrono Trigger played. Sounded like Guardia Castle...Am I just linking things in my mind or is this actually there?

Aug. 03 2012 03:56 PM


Jul. 25 2012 05:43 PM
kerala houseboat from India

This is impressive. Thanks!

May. 26 2012 03:22 AM

Not sure why this episode does not even mention photographic memory and got more in depth about musical memory.
Also some individuals have extremely accurate memories and can't forget anything.
Especially people with autism or asperger syndrome.
I suggest a follow-up episode going more in depth.

Not surprisingly Music is something that Clive can't forget.
Music and sounds and hearing have the most immediate and direct connection to our emotions.

May. 22 2012 02:14 PM

What is the drug discussed in the 'Eternal Sunshine' segment? They don't give the name of this drug. Does anyone know?

Mar. 18 2012 03:24 PM
Marija Djordjevic

Well I listened to all shows and this is the only one that bothers me (ok one part of it only).I find the part with the painter horrible!Its over the top pathetic-the woman's comments is just....bad!

Mar. 09 2012 01:19 PM
cheryl from wisconsin

is there a transcript available for this?

Mar. 06 2012 08:50 AM
Coral from Portland

Like i wrote in your comment section: "RE-play. The fact that people, "scientists" would rather fuck around messing with the sensetivities of innocent animals, rather than spending that time learning how to be quality human beings makes me sick."
I'm pissed,that you would even entertain the idea of enabling this kind of behavior towards animals by including it in your radio show ,in such a way, no matter what the 'justifications' are. I am disgusted, by this; and humans's feeling of entitlement towards,relying on animals to quench,their inine curiosity,and validate their college degrees and self worth.
If people would spend the time they do harrassing innocent animals and grow some balls, maybe they would actually,get people,to mourn and heal traumas from the past,like humans are supposed to do, rather than sidestepping,those issues ,and extending uneccesary suffering by projecting it on animals.

Feb. 23 2012 12:01 AM
Gary Guercio from Oklahoma

I heard a podcast the other day that I believe was somewhat old. I'm not entirely sure of the exact date but I think it was posted within the last year. It was about a man who could remember virtually everything he had ever encountered and had synesthesia. There was another man involved who also had synesthesia and was entered into a world memory championship but lost. Does anyone by any chance know the podcast I'm thinking of? If so please tell me the name. Thanks.

Feb. 18 2012 11:46 AM
Denis from Portland, OR

Just heard Memory and Forgetting two days ago. Is there a chance that there has been a significant change in what is known about suppressed memories in the 5 years since this program was created?

Feb. 06 2012 08:26 PM

Hap, did you find that episode? It's called "Lost & Found" from season 9.

Nov. 07 2011 03:48 PM
alexander from pagadian city

not realy complete

Aug. 09 2011 09:08 AM

Hap, that's the episode on getting lost.

Jul. 15 2011 12:46 PM
Hap Hudec

I am trying to get a transcript/podcast of your June 4 show. The piece I want is of the woman who, when turned around, lost her memory/mind/identity. She then found a group that deals with such an affliction. Please respond.

Jun. 11 2011 04:22 PM
aiqing from ferq

"Leave a Comment"+Name*Email: (never displayed)*URL Your Comment*

Mar. 23 2011 11:30 PM
Elizabeth from Denver

The player isn't letting me return to the story to finish it without running through the thirty-eight minutes I've already heard.


Mar. 03 2011 12:19 PM

Neither of these two theories is quite accurate. Elizabeth Loftus has done some groundbreaking work, but in terms of what actually happens in the brain, it would be worth checking out the concepts of pattern separation and pattern completion. Because memory cannot by nature be acontextual, it makes more sense that memories would be stored and retrieved in this "pattern" format. Nobody's really trying to interfere with somebody's life (no brainwashing), but really trying to understand the function of this essential element of the human experience.

Feb. 24 2011 05:48 PM
Drew Rogers from Granada Hills, CA

If memories can only be recreated, then theoretically you could only ever remember something by accident. There has to be something holding the "blueprints" for these creations.

Maybe its a mixture of the filing room theory and the recreation theory, and administering that drug at the right time just completely severs any link to where that memory is located. It would be like having a shortcut to a program on your desktop, but having no path to the file.

Feb. 22 2011 07:55 PM

amazing video of savant in UK drawing Rome from memory after a 45 minute helicopter ride

Beautiful Minds: Stephen Wiltshire

Feb. 12 2011 11:17 AM
Jaime Odin from Ithaqueer college daddy


Feb. 11 2011 12:40 PM
the bahlinator from ic baby

none of this is real. thuglife4life

Feb. 11 2011 12:38 PM
Greg from North Platte, NE

Boy, talk about memory. The comment below (the best to my recollection) is better understood by going to the "Limits" episode and listeing to "Limits of the Mind". It was the story of Mr. S .

Feb. 10 2011 03:44 PM
Greg from North Platte, NE

I recall a story about a noted memory expert able to recall an extraordinary amount of "things", forward, backward or randomly. He would travel around displaying his unique ability. In addition, he was studied by those in the scientific field, pushed to the limit of memory. He never failed to amaze. To make a long story short, he eventually "flipped his wig". He no longer could form or hold his OWN thoughts without a flood of previous things remembered constantly bombarding his individual thoughts or ideas. These memories never stopped. Just imagine a hughe and endless amount of data interrupting you own thoughts to the point where you lose yourself, forever.
I believe this story is from "This American Life", if not here at Radiolab.

Jan. 30 2011 11:52 PM

I loved this program and searched to find the podcast. It says so much about how and why we remember as we do. Both disappointing and facinating.

Jan. 24 2011 04:21 PM

Ugh. I'm trying to listen to this radiolab from school, but it's so hard to stay attentive to it. The background noises and people talking over each other make it so difficult to concentrate.

Nov. 04 2010 12:54 PM
arshasharshan from cochin ,(kerala)

Dr Sir

My name is Arsha. I am 20 yr old. 1st year B com student and also working in Infopark ACS as a transaction processor.Now i'm in a bad situation.I don't know what is happening....

Sometimes i forgot about my past. My parents,relatives,friends,,,,,forgot everything.My mind become blank,,,,,please help me if u can,,,,

Oct. 05 2010 09:35 AM
Edgar Bailey

To my understanding they are treating the brain like some thing out of a scifi movie. They are using all different kind of methods to figure out the brain and its functions. I do believe that they are messing with GOD creation and we are soon going to be walking around like robots. Memory is a part of the brain and taking pills to see if ones memory can relocate might be a bit for fetch. Trying to erase memorys or inplant memory i think can be damaging. Scientist will always want to explore the imposibilties.

Sep. 29 2010 06:23 PM
asas from castro

bla blabla

Sep. 19 2010 11:43 PM

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