Erasing bad memories

Scientists are developing drug treatments that would erase bad memories. See this article. So far, the experiments hardly match the hype. But what if that could be done? Would that be good or bad? Would it damage our very identity?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Eric M

    On the funny side: this could lead to the flashy thingee in Men in Black.

    On the more serious side: In the show “Babylon 5″ (one of the best Sci-Fi series IMNSHO) they had a punishment for very serious crimes – death of personality. Basically a telepath would rip the memories and personality out of the criminal and implant “good thoughts” about helping others. The criminal would then be released back into society to perform the “good” function.

    If we can selectively erase memories, we could be on a similar path to messing with people’s personalities if they are deemed to be a danger to society.

    Initially, this might be used for criminals. But what activity will be “criminal” or “dangerous” in the future?

  • Matt C.

    I think it would be more likely to be used as a consumer good. You could start off by forgetting traumatic experiences (much quicker than therapy). Eventually it could end up being the ultimate means of escaping the consequences of your actions; you wouldn’t even have to feel guilty because you wouldn’t remember what you did.

    It could also mean the end of being shaped by adversity. Hope won’t be produced by character because character won’t be produced by perseverence because suffering can simply be forgotton.

    Although one does wonder… would this treatment create the equivalent of a repressed memory–one that affects your mind/behavior without being consciously recognized?

  • Joe

    This is a bad thing. Our experiences and the memories of them help to determine how we relate to the world around us. They also teach what not to do. The physical and/or emotional pain of a mistake is the greatest teaching tool I know.

  • http://viz.tumblr.com Tickletext

    It’s a terrible idea.

    I would quote Augustine’s words on memory to support my contention–if I could remember them.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m sure it would be a bad thing.

    But it sure attracts me.

  • Bob Hunter

    What else could they erase if they put their “minds” to it – “Wrong Thinking” such as our Christian beliefs?

  • NQB

    I didn’t care for the movie too much myself, but “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” anyone?
    Isn’t this just medicinal suppression, repression, denial? And aren’t those generally considered unhealthy ways to deal with experiences and situations?
    In the trials, when they “erase” negative memories with spiders, isn’t that physically dangerous because we won’t be able to learn from harmful/traumatic experiences. Would we give this to a kid who burned his hand on the oven because he it upset him?

  • Kay M.

    Kind of a timely topic as I’m reading Brave New World with our boys.

    “The Savage nodded, frowning. ‘You got rid of them. Yes, that’s just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether ’tis better in the mid to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageious fotune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them…But you don’t do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. It’s too easy.’”

  • Dan Kempin

    Kind of ironic, really. Most people I know who have faced a loved one with alzheimers or dementia consider it a more terrible disease than one that would waste the body.

    Still, selective amnesia is a very old concept that has been explored a great deal in literature, from the river Lethe to the “flashy thing” of men in black. It is certainly intriguing, and almost certainly better left in the theoretical.

    As an aside, does this illustrate at all how phobic people have become of suffering? Destroy a life, and now destroy a mind–just so long as you can abate suffering.

  • Paul E.

    If the Iranians got ahold of this technology, they really could get the world to believe that the Holocaust didn’t actually happen!

    Just imagine the other possibilities.

    This is a terrible idea.

  • richard

    Hey, Spock used this on CPT Kirk through his Vulcan mind meld! How bad could that be?

  • Peter Leavitt

    Well, this would be chemically achieving what the “progressives” do all the time, such as the present amnesia about 9/11.

    last night in a moving Ash Wednesday service we were asked by our pastor to remember our manifold iniquities and summon up the courage to ask forgiveness for them.Maybe one could take a pill for this in the future and become a zombie.

  • Dan Kempin

    Interesting concept, Peter. Perhaps it is the new theology to replace “forgive” with “forget.” Instead of seeking forgiveness and resolution, people can seek oblivion and ignorance.

  • WebMonk

    NQB – no this isn’t chemical repression, at least as far as I can tell from reading the various articles on this. It’s pretty much an erasure. Not a flawless one, by any stretch of the imagination, but still an erasure. What it leaves behind me still cause troubles, or might exacerbate the troubles, but what it does erase is truly erased, not just pushed down to possibly resurface later.

    I have my doubts as to the effectiveness possible with this technique. Without diving off into speculation about what may be possible some day, I seriously doubt this is going to be useful.

    Sample case: a rape which the victim wants to forget. I can see the drug working to erase the specific memory of the rape, but I can’t see that it is capable of removing the knowledge that one was raped. Would it be beneficial to a person to know they were raped, but not be able to remember it? Possibly, but I can also imagine that introducing other problems and issues.

  • Jonathan

    Doesn’t the Lord promise to not just forgive our sins, but to forget them? Forgiveness carries with it the quality of forgetfulness.

  • Kay M.

    from my earlier comment:

    outrageious fotune

    What’s up with that??!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Yes, Jonathan, that’s what I keep remembering as I read this post: God’s promise to “Remember their sins no more.”

    Then I think of the unbelievable cost which God himself bore for my own sins including the many thoughts, actions, and experiences I myself would sincerely like to forget. This lent it will be good to meditate on the cross of Christ – that love of God demonstrated which I believe will be remembered forever – though our sins be completely forgotten in the pity of God for us, both sinners and victims.

    Hidden in this desire to forget the bad are hints at the way of peace which God has already made available to all people in Christ.

    Its interesting that science wants to create an alternate way. What God does perfectly and well – man seeks on his own with potentially catastrophic consequences for some already very hurt individuals.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Its interesting to also think about how much more scary this stuff would be for those Christians who hold to some form of decision theology – where remembering that moment they turned their lives over to Christ is so very important and rehearsed and remembered. What happens to their faith when they are confronted with the possibility of forgetting all of that? Or the possibility that someone could take that away?

    God be praised that we are not saved by our memories. Memory is good – memorization of God’s Word is a great treasure – but no one can take away the life God gives us in Christ. No matter how our memories leave us in this life.

    “remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”

  • Jonathan

    Bryan, even Veith recognizes this as more science fiction than science. I mean, how can only ‘bad’ memories be erased? And I wonder why you think one’s decision to trust Christ would be stored as a ‘bad’ memory, subject to erasure.
    Interesting that the mind itself has a way of erasing severely traumatic memories; otherwise, the sufferer would likely be unable to function. Same with treatment for PTSD. We ought to be grateful for psychiatric advances that treat mental trauma, just as we are for physiological breakthroughs that mitigate the harm of physical trauma.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I was trying to express how I’m not overly alarmed by this, Jonathan. I really appreciated your point above.

    I think I was speaking of memories more in general terms rather than distinguishing between bad ones and good ones, especially in my second post.

    Again, for folks frightened by these things or at risk for Alzheimers, what good news it is that our memories do not save us.

  • anny

    I told my friend recently that I was glad for all the bad things that happened to her in her past (not to be morbid) because those bad experiences created this person whom I really love. Bad things aren’t always that bad, there still is some good news within the bad.

  • Matt C.

    As I read the article, a methodological question springs to mind. If you replaced the drug in the study with a sedative, wouldn’t the results be the same? It’s not as though they hook the subjects up to a polygraph and ask if they remember when they showed them pictures of spiders and shocked them yesterday.

  • Kelly

    NQB mentioned “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” The first film I thought of immediately upon reading this was “The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.” It’s a very interesting treatment of the subject and how it affects identity, though it deals with physical and not just emotional healing.

    Come to think of it, what is it with all these Elijah Wood films that deal with using medical means to erase the torments of the past? Even sailing off to the Undying Lands to be “healed,” in The Return of the King, has some of that happening. :o)

  • http://www.frontporchrepublic.com SKLundy

    Tampering with the human mind is at best dangerous. But if there is danger, there is also hope. But erasing “bad” memories is such a subjective choice, and what memories aren’t formed in some way by pain? Erasure of pain is not “coming to terms” with pain, but rather refusing to come to terms with it. I can’t imagine this would be healthy save in the most extreme of cases. The power to erase is the power to erase good or bad memories. Technology is quickly getting out of hand.

    “Eternal Sunshine” is a good example, as is a certain Dr. Who episode, and more generally, Hollywood’s obsession with amnesia. For better or worse, modifying the human body and mind seems to be a real trend: Homo Evolutis.

  • http://telecoaching4u.com Nick Arrizza M.D.

    Everything we believe about the hazards of erasing negative memories is inaccurate; that’s if you do it the right way i.e. without drugs, surgery, hypnosis etc. To learn the right way check out my work by googling my name or a modality called the Mind Resonance Process.
    Best Wishes,
    Nick Arrizza M.D.


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