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Imagine for the moment that you had the ability to rid yourself of some of your life’s worst memories. Perhaps you were the victim of some sort of violence or abuse. Maybe you suffered some profound loss in your life. Or possibly you simply would like to forget a time you completely embarrassed yourself in front of others. If a mind erasing treatment offered you this option, would you consider it? And if so, what criteria would you use to determine which memories to alter?

While this sounds like a question for the science fiction reader, it is actually based in today’s reality. Researchers and scientists are beginning to unlock some of the secrets to memory circuits of the human mind. And in the process, the potential for memory-erasing treatments and memory drugs is increasing. While some individuals could clearly benefit from such memory drugs, these developments present larger concerns. From issues surrounding morality and existentialism to humanity itself, memory-erasing therapies present some interesting dilemmas. And exploring these dilemmas more thoroughly will be essential in determining the role these therapies may play in our future.

Memory drugs, Steve Ramirez quoted
Centuries of studying the brain, and yet it’s still one of the biggest mysteries today.

Current Insights About Memory-Erasing Strategies

For a number of years, researchers have embraced a theory or memory reconsolidation in their efforts to understand memory. In essence, this theory recognizes that memories are not simply static recordings but instead quite dynamic. Through conscious recollection of a memory, individuals invite the possibility of manipulating that memory. And in theory, memory-erasing opportunities may actually occur. This has encouraged a completely new field designed to explore memory drugs that can modify existing recollections.

In this regard, several experiments are beginning to show support for the theory of memory reconsolidation. At MIT, researchers have previously shown that site-specific stimulation of mouse hippocampal regions of the brain can trigger past memories. Likewise, at the University of Toronto, selective memories can be eliminated by targeting specific brain areas. And most recently, human subjects at McGill University have demonstrated an ability to modify past memories. By frequently recalling a past traumatic event while taking propranolol, subjects modified past memories. Though not a memory drug per se, propranolol altered prior memories making their emotional content less profound.

Memory-erasing therapies, Judy Illes quoted
Any intervention for PTSD is much needed.

Individual Moral Responsibility with Memory Drugs

Clearly, some scientists are in favor of memory-erasing interventions in some disease conditions. Severe depression and PTSD are among some of the more debilitating conditions where memory-erasing or modifying therapies may help. But what about less profound issues like adjustment disorder after a loss? And what about non-health conditions where one simply wants to rid themselves of a bad memory? From a moral perspective, do memory drugs that alter our recollections pose some type of slippery slope?

In terms of morality and bioethics, memory-erasing therapies must abide by other accepted parameters. This requires interventions to offer benefit, do no harm, and to be fair and just. Whether or not memory drugs and therapies that alter existing memories meet these criteria are questionable. They might provide benefits in some instances, but at the same time, may cause harm. After all, learning and growth come from recalling past experiences. If memories are changed or eliminated, might this not alter our ability to learn right from wrong? In other words, if memory-erasing interventions occur, are individuals still as morally responsible for their actions?

Memory drugs, U.S. President's Council on Bioethics quoted
Will memory-erasing drugs make us less human? There will always be that question. 

Memory-Erasing Interventions and Human Existentialism

The ethics and effects on moral development are key issues related to memory-erasing therapies. At the same time, the slippery slope involving memory drugs also involves the foundation of being human. Each of us has bad memories, and each of us has suffered at some point in time. If memory-erasing therapies evolve, the potential to only have “good” memories might develop. And in these instances, the inherent definition of humanity could change. Without less pleasant memories, the capacity to evolve as both individually and collectively could drastically change.

In other research, most individuals who have had bad experiences later appreciate their occurrence. In fact, most believe that even the most unfortunate events helped them grow and become the person they are today. Regardless of whether these assessments are correct, they highlight the essence of human nature. Humanity expands through struggle and suffering. Without these struggles and unpleasant events, our capacity to evolve declines. Thus, by using memory-erasing therapies to alter the recollection of bad experiences, these opportunities are threatened. Human existence as we know it could also change.

To Forget or Not Forget, That Is the Question

In some instances, making traumatic memories less intense offers hope to many who suffer from pathologic emotional states. In such cases, memory drugs that modify memories and their effects sound to be reasonable pursuits. But memory-erasing therapies that eliminate our recollections carry serious concerns for all of us. The effects ethically, morally and even developmentally are potentially profound. And this not only affects us as individuals but as a species as well. From this perspective, we should recognize that memory-erasing treatments require specific boundaries. Without question, many aspects of life are unpleasant. But without them, life wouldn’t be life. Our memories make us who we are, and we should safeguard them in our pursuits of self-actualization.

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