Greg Miller took a career path not all that uncommon to science writers. “I thought I wanted to be a scientist,” he says. Miller earned his PhD in neuroscience at Stanford University. “But it turns out that although I love science, I don’t like being cooped up in a lab all day.” Now he writes about brains and behavior as a San Francisco-based correspondent for Science. I recently spoke with Miller about his experience reporting, “Making Memories,” a story about new research that suggests, somewhat disturbingly, that every time we remember something, that memory is altered.
What drew you to this story, in particular, about memory?
I’ve been covering memory research for Science for a while, and I think this idea of reconsolidation—it’s actually an old idea that has had a resurgence in the last five or ten years—is one of the more provocative ideas in all of neuroscience. We like to think that our memories stay put and don’t change very much. But this research suggests that maybe every time that we recall something, we have the potential to change it a little bit. I think that’s an interesting and unsettling idea.
How did you connect with Karim Nader?
He’s the guy leading the charge in this area. There are some older studies going back to the ‘60s, but they hadn’t really gained a lot of traction in the field until he came along.
What was your favorite moment during the research?
I think my favorite part was just talking with Karim. He’s an unusual guy. I spend a lot of time talking to scientists, and a lot of them are just really cautious and conservative about their findings. Karim is more willing than most to speculate about the implications of his work and try to connect his research in rats with the everyday experiences of memory. He might get in a little bit of trouble sometimes with his colleagues for being a little bit willing to go out on a limb, but it definitely makes him a fun guy to talk with. He’s really energetic and enthusiastic about what he does.
People are protective of their memories. Do you think the news will be hard for the general public to swallow?
It’s true. We seem to put a lot of value on having an accurate memory. If we have a good memory, we like to think that it works something like a tape recorder or video recorder that’s just taking everything down absolutely faithfully. But that might not be the best way. Some p eople think that the reason we have memory at all is to better prepare for the future. It’s more important to take the gist of what’s happened to us and distill it into something that we can draw on when we face a similar dilemma in the future.