About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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April 4, 2004

Your Right to Erase Bad Memories

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Robin Henig writes about modern medicine's ability to erase bad memories in today's NYTimes Magazine:

"All of us have done things in our lives we'd rather not have done, things that flood us with remorse or pain or embarrassment whenever we call them to
mind. If we could erase them from our memories, would we? Should we?"

''Going through difficult experiences is what life is all about; it's not all honey and roses,'' said Eric Kandel, a professor of psychiatry and physiology at Columbia University. ''But some experiences are different. When society asks a soldier to go through battle to protect our country, for instance, then society has a responsibility to help that soldier get through the aftermath of having seen the horrors of war.''

Of course, post-battlefield remorse serves as a check on our militaristic tendencies. Vietnam veterans haunted by memories of combat were among the most forceful opponents of the war after their return home.... If we have the responsibility to treat veterans' physical wounds, don't we also have a responsibility to ease their psychic suffering?"

The article focuses on a study performed by Roger Pitman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where 20 subjects took a placebo pill and half were took propranolol, which interferes with the action of stress hormones in the brain.

"When stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine are elevated, new memories are consolidated more firmly, which is what makes the recollection of emotionally charged events so vivid, so tenacious, so strong. If these memories are especially bad, they take hold most relentlessly, and a result can be the debilitating flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder. Interfering with stress hormone levels by giving propranolol soon after the trauma, according to Pitman's hypothesis, could keep the destructive memories from taking hold."

So should we provide propranolol to everyone who experiences a traumatic event? Perhaps not. Citing recent brain imaging research on twins it appears that "some individuals may be more prone to shown that a small hippocampus is a marker for susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder."

Clearly, the right to erase one's memory is closer than many would believe. If you are interested in being on the cutting edge of this debate, you shouldn't miss a tomorrow's talk by Richard Glen Boire, one of the leading independent neuroethicists in the nation, who will be speaking at Penn State's Rock Ethics Institute on the future of freedom on thought and cognitive liberty.

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Neuroethics


1. Wrye Sententia on April 5, 2004 7:10 PM writes...

Here's my LTE to the NYT Magazine on what I find, from its heavy unquestioning reliance on the President's Council, a politically uninformed article on the topic of memory erasure:

Blocking out History
“The Quest to Forget” is about much more than what we can or can’t remember. It is about who is to decide whether or not we have a right to forget. Will it be doctors? Government-appointed ethicists? Marantz Henig missed an important point in the debate: the selective erasure of collective memory. The article closes with a quote from William May “a former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics” obliquely referencing the recent shakedown of Council members that resulted in the firing of William May and Elizabeth Blackburn. Both were guilty of gelling 'bad memories' for the Council and were summarily dismissed. It is ironic that the Council has opted for its own historical mind-wipe while at the same argues that individuals should buck up to their past. Policy guidance informed by intentional, selective erasure of divergent views is social trauma in the making.

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2. Craig on April 23, 2004 1:18 AM writes...

Dear Zack,
If we erased bad memories, what would we then lose from them? Everything in life will teach you something, and the worst memories may haunt you, but you may have learned a very valuable lesson because of it. Mistakes you will never make again, things that have been done to you, or things you have done to others. Though im not sure if it is possible to erase them from your mind, there is one way to ease the pain, and that is through forgiveness and grace. (I'm sorry that word seems churchy.. but that's the only word for it.) If you've made a mistake.. the worst possible mistake in your life, you can always be forgiven for it! Yes i'm talking about God's forgiveness, if you haven't yet heard of this.. email me. I'll be glad to talk to you about it. And if someone had done something to you... i've found that the best thing to do.. is to forgive that person.. EVEN IF IT'S THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD!! Forgiveness IS the key to happyness, I believe that with all my heart, soul, and mind.
The real question to this all is.. would you actually WANT to forget, knowing that you're pain actually helped you, helps others, and that the pain can be taken away WITHOUT erasing that memory? (

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3. James Griffin on August 3, 2004 3:10 AM writes...

Personally I’m not sure what side I should lean towards, are we really supposed to self engineer our own minds in such a dramatic way?
Or does the pursuit of happiness include erasing the bad things that have happened or will happen in our lives? Could this be a Pandora’s box of scientific danger? Or could this be the best thing to happen to the human race? I will try to explore the pro’s, cons and possible applications of selective memory removal further.
Pro’s, obviously a vast amount of mental illnesses would no longer be a concern for anyone, even the person with the most shattered life would in theory have a chance to be reborn. People of the world would no longer have to spend the billions of dollars every year on prescription drugs and psychotherapy. Everyone to a degree could be mentally content throughout the span of their lives.
Con’s, if you have ever watched a film about time travel, you would see that once a person went back in time and changed something in his past no matter how insignificant, it would have drastic results in the present “a paradox“, for example, if one were to go back in to the past and kick a coke can down the street, a toddler could walk in the street after it and get hit by a car and killed. Who knows if that child could have been the next president, the family’s lives are changed, the person who hit the child’s life has been altered as well.. It just continues to snowball. In my opinion the prospect of erasing memories is like mental time travel, and could cause a mental paradox that could be crippling. All traumatic and important memories are stored in the long term memory bank within our brain, and psychologists have concluded that long term memories define our behavior and ultimately are responsible for building the person we are for better or worse. If we’re able to cut out a traumatic memory from the past, it is also a possibility that we could end up severing some or all of the neurological links associated with that memory, like a row of dominoes, when one collapses they all fall.
Another foreseeable downfall of memory management would be it’s abuse. People might begin to undergo the treatment at the drop of a hat, for any kind of event they deem undesirable.Last but not least, who could stand to utilize this technology as a weapon? I believe that the military/intelligence agencies would be more than inclined to add memory removal to their arsenal. What if terrorists suddenly forgot why they hate America? What if Palestine forgot their feud with Israel? What if religious extremists “lost their religion” These drugs/technology could essentially be the mental reset button of the planet if they are somehow administered on a mass scale.
In conclusion I believe that everyone has a right to be happy and free of pain, for physical injuries you go to a hospital and get treatment.. The body heals fast. The mind however is not as easy to heal, If someone is suffering from mental anguish that conventional drugs don’t seem to cure than I would suggest the memory removal treatment. I would hope that this technology will be strictly regulated and guarded just like nuclear weaponry.. as it has the potential to be just as destructive.

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