Monday, April 06, 2009

Memory B-Gone

Memories are persistent, for most people. Of course, that includes not only happy memories of childhood or loved ones past, but also bad memories of trauma, disaster, and heartbreak. If you could wipe those bad memories out of your mind, would you do it? You may not have as long to ponder that question as you think:

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.
Of course, there are numerous ethical questions that come with such a treatment. Does obliterating memories, even just bad ones, change who we fundamentally are as people? If we are largely a product of our combined experiences, it would seem to.

It calls to mind two pieces of sci-fi tech that might be around the corner. One is the process that's the catalyst for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which deals directly with the idea of wiping out memories (although both bad and good ones, as it turns out). Another is the capital punishment replacement presented in the Babylon 5 universe, the "death of personality," in which a criminal's memories are basically erased and his brain reset to a law abiding state. Of course, there's a bit of A Clockwork Orange in there, too.

With all that in mind, it seems to me this is a technology that should be developed. It's all well and good to wax poetical about what memories mean to our humanity, but for people who are laboring under traumas that keep them from living a normal life, they should at least have the chance to try it out.

No comments: