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Daniela Schiller is an Israeli-born cognitive neuroscientist whose groundbreaking research on memory and fear has opened up new pathways for treating addiction, responding to trauma, and addressing phobias. Through a series of experiments conducted in laboratories in New York City in the 2000s, Daniela proved that emotions like fear can be removed from the memories they are associated with, thus challenging long-held assumptions that, once formed, memories could not be changed.
Meet neuroscientist, keynote speaker, and award-winning author, Friederike Fabritius! Friederike brought us the story of Daniela Schiller and in this interview gives us important tips for how we can all keep our brains healthy and happy.
FRIEDERIKE FABRITIUS Once upon a time, there was a girl who learned how to take the fear out of scary memories. Her name is Daniela.
FABRITIUS Daniela grew up in Israel in the 1970s, where she lived with her father, mother, and three older siblings.
Daniela always wanted to know how and why things worked the way they did. Especially, her father, Sigmund.
Every year, on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, sirens blare out across Israel. Drivers pull over and get out of their cars. Pedestrians stand still and bow their heads. For two minutes, everyone stopped what they were doing to remember the six million Jewish people who lost their lives in the Holocaust during World War II.
Everyone except Daniela’s father, that is.
Draped in his green Moroccan dressing gown, he simply kept flipping the pages of his newspaper and sipping his coffee. He refused to talk—or even think about that time.
And this…this fascinated Daniela. And, it would lead her to life’s work…
FABRITIUS I’m Friederike Fabritius. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode: Daniela Schiller.
FABRITIUS Daniela first learned about the Holocaust in school. During the 1930s and 40s, there was a massive war. A WORLD War. At that time the government that controlled Germany was run by a group called the Nazi Party, who killed many millions of people. Mostly for being Jewish but for other reasons too: their religion, ethnicity, cultural background—in other words, simply because of who they were. Later this became known as the Holocaust.
After the war, a new nation was created—Israel—and many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust moved there.
Daniela knew that her father, who was from Poland, had lived through this horrible time. So in sixth grade, when Daniela’s teacher gave her an assignment to interview a Holocaust survivor, she went straight to Sigmund.
“Dad, can you tell me about your memories?” she asked him.
But Sigmund said nothing.
Daniela tried and tried to get him to open up, but each time, he refused.
Sigmund could not bring himself to tell his daughter anything. Instead, her imagination filled in the blanks.
FABRITIUS Many of Daniela’s classmates grew up fearing German people because of what the Nazis had done to their loved ones.
Some of the neighborhood kids even bullied Daniela because, with her fair skin and blond hair, they said she looked like a German.
One summer, when Daniela was a teenager, her parents sent her to a kibbutz. Kibbutzim are communities in Israel that are often based on farming and encouraging people to work together.
When Daniela arrived, the fresh country air filled her lungs. Cows mooed and munched on grasses in the fields, and birds sang from nearby trees. She stowed her heavy bag and was soon hard at work alongside her fellow volunteers.
FABRITIUS One group was speaking a different language, and Daniela found out they were Germans. Before then, she had only seen Germans portrayed in Holocaust movies, and all of them were angry soldiers.
But the young German volunteers were kind, and Daniela soon realized they had a lot in common. Although Daniela didn’t speak German, she did speak some English, and so did the volunteers’ leader, Johannes.
Johannes and Daniela hung out every day, talking about their lives and sharing stories. Daniela found herself starting to like Johannes. Then, one day, Johannes brought a poem to share with Daniela.
They sat close together, and Johannes started reading in German. But as the words flowed from his lips, Daniela suddenly became afraid. She had never heard German spoken so closely to her before.
Terrifying images flashed through her brain—all the bad things she imagined must have happened to her father.
“Stop!” Daniela shouted, pushing Johannes away. Johannes’s eyes widened in surprise.
Daniela didn’t know how to tell him about the images or her father. So, she lied, and claimed her had stepped on her toe.
That supposed physical pain was so much easier to talk about than the hurt she felt in her mind.
FABRITIUS Later, Daniela thought there must be something wrong with her. She saw and felt those images of suffering as if they were hers—but it was her father’s story. And besides, Johannes was just reading a poem.
Why was she afraid?
She felt like Sigmund might be able to help her, but she knew he’d never talk. So, she looked elsewhere for answers.
She went to college and studied philosophy and psychology at Tel Aviv University.
Eventually, in 2004, she earned a doctoral degree in cognitive neuroscience. This is the study of how all the little connections in your brain work: what sets them off? And, how do they function?
After what her father, and so many other Holocaust survivors went through – this was personal for Daniela. She knew that some people’s memories were so scary that they couldn’t process them.
And, she wondered, if there was a way to RE-WRITE those memories. And take some of the scary-ness away.
FABRITIUS People often think that a memory is like a book in the library of our brains. Once something happens to us, they think, it gets written in the memory book and stored in our heads for forever.
But in the 1990s and 2000s, scientists were thinking that maybe this WASN’T how memories worked.
And, there were new tools they could use to actually MAP the brain. Scientists could now see what actually happens when memories are formed and then remembered later.
What they found was that, instead of a book stored in your brain, a memory is more like a puzzle. When we remember something, we bring together different puzzle pieces to reconstruct what happened, how we felt, and what something looked or smelled like.
Some scientists, like Daniela, wondered if those puzzle pieces could be changed or moved around? Was there a way that we could take some of the hard emotions away when we pulled some of our puzzles out of storage?
Turns out…the answer was…YES.
FABRITIUS In 2004, Daniela won a big fellowship and moved to New York City. She joined a team of scientists at New York University who had been studying memory for a long time.
Several years earlier, Karim Nader, a researcher at the lab, had made an incredible breakthrough. Nader found that when rats recalled a fearful memory, he could erase the fear response by giving the rat a specific medicine at just the right time.
So, when the rats’ memory puzzle pieces were pulled out, put together, and put back in storage, it was possible to change the pieces—like removing the “fear” piece.
Daniela wanted to conduct a similar experiment with humans. Unfortunately, though, the drug Karim had used was toxic to people. She felt stuck. The answers seemed so close, but she didn’t know how to get there.
But soon enough – a NEW discovery would drop the answer Daniela was looking for RIGHT in her lap.
FABRITIUS Not long after Daniela arrived in New York and started working at the lab another scientist there made a discovery.
The scientist found that when the rats did something nice while remembering a scary memory, the fear disappeared.
This was so simple…but so HUGE.
Could this work for humans, too? she thought.
Daniela had to find out. She launched a new study.
She asked her research participants to look at different-colored shapes that popped up on a computer screen. Each time a blue square showed up, they received a small electric shock. By the time the participants came into the lab the next day, the sight of a blue square made them afraid.
But after they recalled that fearful memory, Daniela showed them many blue squares without a shock. They soon learned that the blue square was safe again.
But! They still had the memory of the blue square and the shock. It just wasn’t scary or upsetting anymore.
After Daniela published her study’s results in Nature in 2010, other scientists started doing similar experiments. And they found the same thing: The puzzle you put together each time you remember something is never the same.
AND – the most important thing for Daniela’s research – there’s a small window of time where, if you do just the right thing, you can make some important changes to that puzzle piece!
FABRITIUS A few years later, something happened to Daniela that seemed even more remarkable.
At a film screening, Daniela met Liron Unreich, a filmmaker who was documenting stories about survivors of the Holocaust and their children.
After hearing Daniela’s story, Liron asked her if he could film Daniela and her father. Daniela told him that her father wouldn’t speak to him. But Liron wanted to meet Sigmund anyway, and surprisingly, Sigmund agreed.
So, Liron and Daniela went to Israel, where they met with Sigmund in his home. Daniela and Sigmund sat in the living room along with Liron and his cinematographer.
Once the cameras were rolling, Daniela asked, “Dad, do you want to talk about your memories?”
“No,” Sigmund said.
Silence filled the room.
But then, after a few minutes, Sigmund spoke. And he told his daughter about his family and what they went through during the Holocaust.
Sigmund pulled out the puzzle pieces of his memories by telling his stories to Daniela. As he finished, putting those pieces away, Daniela hoped that maybe they were different now. Maybe because he had shared them in a safe space with someone he loved–maybe he would feel less fear.
And now, Daniela had new memories of him, too. Ones that she would hold onto for the rest of her life.
Daniela had wanted to help her father reconsolidate his memories. But in the end, she realized, she had reconsolidated her own.
FABRITIUS Now a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn [Icon] School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, Daniela continues to study how and why memories work the way they do. Studies inspired by her research are also helping therapists and doctors treat addiction and erase feelings of fear embedded in memories related to war and trauma.
So if you have scary and sad memories that you struggle to talk about or can’t forget, remember that they’re just puzzle pieces. And maybe one day, with the right help, or by sharing them with the right people and in safe spaces, they can change and become not-so-scary, too.
“We think that memories determine who we are. But in fact, we . . . . are the masters of our memory spaces,” Daniela once said. “We are actually free.”