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.