Erasing Bad Memories

Erasing Bad Memories November 21, 2019

What you are today is a function of all of your experiences, thoughts, and decisions that you have had in the past and throughout your life.  The most formative experiences are still accessible to us through our memories, good and bad, which  continue to shape us.  What if you could just erase from your mind all of the bad things that ever happened to you?  Would you do that?  If you could eliminate all of your bad memories, what would that do to the rest of who you are?

Some researchers are trying to find a way to erase bad memories from the mind.  Sharon Kirkey in the National Post has written an article on this effort entitled If you could erase the worst memory of your life, would you? Scientists are working on a pill for that.

“If you could erase the memory of the worst day of your life, would you,” Elizabeth Phelps and Stefan Hofmann write in the journal, Nature. “How about your memory of a person who has caused you pain?”

What was once purely science fiction is moving ever closer to clinical reality. Researchers are working on techniques and drugs that might enable us to edit our memories or at least seriously dull their impact — to make the intolerable bearable — by, say, swallowing a pill to block the synaptic changes needed for a memory to solidify. A pill that could be taken hours, even months or years after the event.

The article goes on to tell about the various strains of research and experimentation.  Actually, as the article makes clear, scientists are far, far from being able to do this.  The workings of memory in the human brain are not well understood, much less being able to isolate a particular memory so as to delete it.  The successful or partially efforts the article describes involve not deleting memories but “toning down” memories in people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder so that memories of the traumatic event no longer have such a debilitating impact.

Such PTSD treatment is surely legitimate, but some researchers would like to go further.  The article, though, raises some problems with the manipulation or erasure of memories.  Our prior experiences, including the bad ones, shape who we are.  And our memories, including the bad ones, enable us to learn and to grow.

The writer, Sharon Kirkey, quotes University of British Columbia neurology professor Judy Illes:

Learning doesn’t occur without memory. How do we learn from a bad relationship, if we can’t remember it? “And so now, if we pre-select what memories stick and don’t stick, it almost starts to be like the eugenics of memory,” Illes says. “We ought to think carefully about that.”. . .

Memories give us a sense of consciousness, [Neurology Prof. Judy Illes] says, of who we are and what we know to be right and wrong and moral and immoral.

A prescient 2003 report from the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics asked whether the then-emerging field of memory-alteration would mean abandoning our own truthful identities.

“Armed with new powers to ease the suffering of bad memories, we might come to see all psychic pain as unnecessary and in the process come to pursue a happiness that is less than human,” the authors wrote, “an unmindful happiness, unchanged by time and events, unmoved by life’s vicissitudes.”

I am skeptical that scientists will ever be able to “edit” or “delete” our memories.  Much of this work assumes the myth that the human mind is nothing more than a computer, a misconception we have blogged about in our post The Brain Is NOT a Computer.  To speak of computer “memory” is to use a metaphor drawn from human memory, but the two are very different kinds of things, as both computer experts and neurologists agree.  We certainly cannot read the metaphor backwards as if the mind were a hard drive from which we could select files and hit “delete.”

I see this effort, though, as a symptom of our current phobia against every kind of suffering.  We discussed this in our recent post about the anti-natalists who believe that any suffering takes away the value of life itself.  Here we see the impulse not only to avoid suffering at all costs but to remove from the mind any suffering that has already occurred.

What would be left of us if we had no memory of anything bad ever happening to us, as if we had never suffered?  A loved-one dies–take a pill so that it doesn’t hurt any more.  Would we remember the loved one, but not that he or she had died?  Or would we make do with a “toned down” memory so that the death would not make us feel sad?  Isn’t sadness at the loved-one’s passing part of the love we feel for that person?  Wouldn’t we be diminished without it?

To be sure, there is a good kind of forgetting.  God says, “I will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12), and there is a kind of forgetting when we too forgive someone.  But this isn’t a forgetting that certain things occurred.  Rather, it is a change in how they are regarded.  We can reflect on our memories of past wrongs and change the way we feel about them.  But this is dealing with our memories, not trying to get rid of them.


Illustration:  “Erase” by Mattia Merlo via Flickr, Creative Commons License

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