What Should We Forget?

In January MIT announced a research study published in the journal Cell that reported a way to erase traumatic memories in lab mice using a drug that makes the brain “more plastic, more capable of forming very strong new memories that will override the old fearful memories.” MIT opened its story by referring to “nearly 8 million Americans [who] suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and went on to cite potential therapeutic benefits: “The war veteran who recoils at the sound of a car backfiring, and the recovering drug addict who feels a sudden need for their drug of choice when visiting old haunts have one thing in common: Both are victims of their own memories.” The research got positive reviews, including from Dr. Jelena Radulovic, a professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, who declared that “the mechanisms that were discovered will provide us with new tools to study memory and maybe tackle fear responses in patients.”

Sheer fascination with the workings of the human brain seems sufficient to justify research into the wonder of human memory; it is quite another step to claim a therapeutic benefit from erasing it.

Memories are not isolated phenomena that can easily be sliced from our lives. They are integrated into our existence, indeed woven in, and become part of our very identity. Far from being disposable, they bring coherence to events around us, including our relationships. We already know the distressing nature of amnesia. If a memory of great personal significance could be erased, would not the discordance in one’s life eventually cause distress? And would not someone with such a gap then seek to understand what filled the gap? Pulling one thread, even if science could be so exact with a chemical, could lead to an unraveling unanticipated by the most well-intended therapist.

To argue that memories should be “extinguished” or excised is also to forget the purpose of memories. We need memories, even the bad ones. In the research cited above, the memory extinguished was that of an electric shock repeatedly received in a specific chamber. How “therapeutic” is it to the mice to forget that they should not venture there again?

But memories do more than help us avoid dangers. They motivate us. They give us reasons to rise above our previous existence. They produce the greatest of human character and achievement. And those are not necessarily our own memories. For to see a memory as something that can be therapeutically plucked from one person’s mind is to view not just one human’s experience as a compilation of disposable parts, but human relationships as well. We all need what each other have learned. From each person’s painful memories are opportunities to learn, grow, find “common sense”, and transcend. They are our chance to become something better than we could be on our own.

There are other concerns as well. What would be the ethical principles for deciding what to erase and what not to? How would we guarantee that this could not become a nefarious tool in the hands of those seeking to harm? We could not, of course.

Erasing memories is like a great denial. It’s what we would do if we didn’t want to deal with the most difficult of circumstances…in other people’s lives. But need it be said that erasing a memory does not erase an evil that caused it, and may render us less able to defend against it?

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