By Richard Glen Boire
As scientists work to develop drugs that improve memory, an article in the current issue of Science indicates that neurobiologists are coming closer to developing drugs that may make it possible to selectively erase memories. If perfected, these drugs could enable a person to eliminate, or significantly dim, specific memories.
Previous studies have shown that if taken before a traumatic event, or within six hours of the event, a drug such as propranolol (a common beta blocker) can significantly reduce recall of that event. Propranolol could soon be used in emergency rooms in an effort to lessen post-traumatic stress disorder that might later haunt victims of serious accidents or violent crimes.
Whats different about the findings published this week in Science, is the possibility of erasing memories that may have been encoded into memory much earlier in life. Whereas propranolol, when used as a memory remover, must be taken in very close temporal proximity to the event that one seeks to forget, these new findings point to the possibility of selectively dumping or dimming memories of incidents that may have occurred as far back as early childhood.
If the science of memory management works as described, and if such drugs make their way into the mainstream, we will be confronted with an array of neuroethical issues. Today, a persons memories are a private and personal matter. But tomorrow, as memory becomes more modifiable, will we have a public obligation to maintain the integrity of our natural memories?
In a future world awash in memory-deleting drugs, a person who commits a crime might be able to silence disconcerting memories of his actions. Some criminals might even force victims to take a memory-erasing drug, after say a rape or robbery. Soldiers on the battlefield, might be able to chemically quell memories of killing enemy soldiers, making it easier to kill again. Executives accused of fraud, embezzlement, or other white collar crimes could chemically delete their own memories of the offenses, and thus truthfully testify that they have no recollection of particular events.
If memory-attenuating drugs take hold in society, how will our legal system deal with them? Will they be regulated like prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs? Will unauthorized use of a memory drug be made a criminal offense? Will we see new legislation passed that makes it a crime to destroy ones own memories (akin to intentionally destroying evidence), when those memories hold information about a potential civil or criminal matter?
The right to cognitive liberty posits that the power to enhance, erase, or otherwise modify ones own memory ought to be an individual decision; something that is neither compelled nor prohibited by laws. While some people will undoubtedly make poor decisions with regard to modifying their own memories, it should not be a crime to modify your own thinking processes. Government may rightfully police our actions, but it does not, and should not, have the power to police our minds.
This does not mean that evidence of a persons use of a memory-reducing drug should not be admissible in court it should be admissible. Presently a witness in a civil or criminal case can be cross-examined on just about every aspect of his or her memory, including whether or not they were taking any drugs (legal or illegal) that might have affected their recollection of an incident. Thus, a jury would be permitted to draw its own conclusions if an Enron executive admits on cross-examination that he or she took a memory-eliminating drug.
Further, a person who commits a violent crime and concomitantly forces the victim to ingest a memory-attenuating drug, should be charged with two serious crimes; the violent crime and a separate assault premised on forcing the victim to take a drug.
The creation of memory changing drugs will raise difficult and complex ethical and social issues. But, in our rush to create new laws and regulations, it is important to protect the basic right of law-abiding citizens to manage their own memories.