Spotless mind… a good thing?

Another film fantasy is close to becoming a reality. Dutch researchers have invented a drug that is said to “erase” bad memories, much like the mind-wiping technology in the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

From the Daily Telegraph:

Previous research on animals had shown fear memories are susceptible to being altered at the time they are recalled, as they are “reconsolidated” in the brain.

Studies suggested beta-blockers, a family of drugs normally used to treat high blood pressure, may interfere with the reconsolidation process.

Now a trial involving human volunteers has given strong support to the theory.

A team of Dutch researchers artificially created a fearful memory by associating pictures of spiders with a mild electric shock delivered to the wrists of the 60 participants.

When the volunteers were shown the spider pictures 24 hours later their “startle” response – a measure of fear – was assessed by testing eyeblink reactions.

Administering the beta-blocker drug propranolol before reactivation of the fearful memory led to a marked reduction in the startle response.

After taking the drug, volunteers were much less disturbed by the spider pictures.

My understanding is that the drug doesn’t remove memory but simply makes recalling it a less painful experience. In the experiment the volunteers still remembered the spider picture after taking the drug, but their reaction to it was much subdued. It appears that the drug functions like something we already have – the depressant.

But if a mind-wiping technology really exists, would you want to use it?

Bad memories are not just there to haunt us; they remind us to avoid doing the things that caused the bad memories in the first place (Once bitten, twice shy). They help us learn our lessons so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. For example, the terrible feeling of embarassment you get from being ridiculed for saying something stupid is burned into your mind, and next time you’d have learned to talk more carefully or at least keep your mouth shut. Bad memories, and the strong desire to avoid them, drive us to learn, socialize and mature.

Also I doubt whether it is really possible to isolate bad memories, which I think are inseparable from the good ones. To illustrate this, let’s continue with the above example. Having become more socially-adept will certainly give you good feelings, as you are no longer haunted by past failure. But would you still feel good, or as good, if previous bad feelings were taken away? I think in some way this is like the classic grandfather paradox: if you went back in time to kill your grandfather, would you still exist (as you would never have been born in the first place)? In any case bad memories do not exist independently of others and I can imagine that removing them could have repercussions on our personality, values or even sense of identity.

A better use of such mind-wiping technology I can think of is to help patients of post-traumatic stress disorder who have difficulty in certain aspects of normal life. For instance, rape victims may develop a fear of the opposite sex which may interfere with their married life.

And as with all new technologies, there will inevitably be debates about how to draw the fine line between proper use and abuse, and moral issues too. This new drug and any future memory-wiping technology will be no exception.

What do you think? Ridicule me and help me learn by sending me your views.

2 thoughts on “Spotless mind… a good thing?

  1. I will never take a drug like that. But there *are* memories I’d rather do without, especially some heart-broken moments and some embarrassing moments.

    I am also concerned about the drug being used for ‘evil’ purposes. What if someone is forced to take it? What if someone has to forget some beautiful things involuntarily due to the drug?

  2. I definitely don’t want to erase any memory, good or bad. It’s like tearing a few pages away from a novel because you don’t like them. My memories don’t have to be perfect, but they must be complete.

    An even more evil use of the drug is to make eye-witnesses forget things that can incriminate someone…

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