March 5, 2024

Can we, should we, erase bad memories?

Recent advances more a talking point than progress

In the film Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet use a specialist medical service to erase painful memories of their relationship. Now medicine is on the brink of developing a “pill to erase bad memories”, according to media accounts of a Dutch study in Nature Neuroscience. The researchers found that beta-blockers reduced anxiety over a painful memory, even though the drug did not erase the memory of the fact. They were attempting to find an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, scientists pooh-poohed the media hype. “All they've shown so far is that the increased ability to startle someone if they are feeling a bit anxious is reduced,” says Professor Neil Burgess, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, in the UK.

However, it is an intriguing topic. After the tabloids had finished, more serious publications took up the thread. Is erasing memories ethical. Would it change our identity? What’s wrong with changing our identity? Anders Sandberg, of Oxford’s Centre for Practical Ethics, thinks that perhaps some identities need to be changed. “Changing an identity as a serial killer to a non-serial killer might be far better than executing or indefinitely incarcerating the killer. If I find myself harboring racist or cruel traits that are incompatible with my otherwise humanist personality, I might become a more coherent and kind person by somehow altering these dark sides.”

At her Newsweek blog Sharon Begley was less positive. She highlighted the danger of trivialising memories: “let’s face it, given the slippery slope of drug use it will be a short step from erasing the memory of a brutal rape or a roadside bomb in Iraq to erasing the memory of a bad date”. She worries that if we are the sum of our memories, a memory-erasing drug might change who we are. ~ Newsweek, Feb 16; Practical Ethics, Feb 17

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memory altering drugs