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Should We Be Erasing Memories?

By S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Julian Savulescu

Scientists from the Medical College of Georgia in the US recently claimed to be able selectively to wipe out traumatic memories. These scientists experimented with mice and found that a particular protein plays a crucial role in the formation of memories. When they made the mice produce an excess of this protein, memories of painful events were completely eliminated.  Such research raises hope for treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which painful memories become intrusive and damage an individual’s ability to live an ordinary life.  In theory, such memories could either have their emotional strength reduced or be blotted out altogether. In practice we are still some distance away from being able to achieve this, but it does not seem unreasonable to think that within the next decade we will be able to control the erasing of memory.

Forgetting is, of course, an ordinary and important part of life. We tend to forget painful and hurtful events and this is important to psychic happiness. Indeed, even self-deception may be important to maintaing psychological stability. Just imagine if we really saw ourselves as others do see us! Depressed people in fact have a more accurate picture of reality. While forgetting and false memories can be a an ordinary part of life and important to psychological stability, using memory modifying technologies (MMTs) such as genetic engineering to reduce the negative effects of trauma raises myriad normative issues.
For example, truthfulness is an issue: we could end up believing in falsehoods if we forget tragedies. But it is unlikely that anybody could successfully erase the knowledge of an important personal tragedy, since evidence that it happened will usually be distributed among family, friends and the society at large. A more serious kind of self-deception would be to change our knowledge of who we are: a soldier who forgot what he did during a war (or even that he participated in the war) might face unpleasant surprises upon learning evidence of his past, especially if it conflicts with the identity he has now created for himself. The soldier might also hold erroneous beliefs about his courage or cruelty, traits that might be relevant in a crisis situation. The use of memory modification in ordinary life to deal with painful human relationships may have the same effects and may rob the user of the ability to grow from experience.

It is, however, worth recognising that our identities are amazingly fluid and inconsistent even today.  Psychological studies have shown that a surprising number of our own memories – even about key autobiographical facts – are actually incorrect or even false. If we think truthfulness of memories is very important, we should already be concerned. Perhaps the open use of memory modification techniques will have the beneficial effect of making people less convinced that their memories are absolutely true. Moreover, if facing up to reality is important, then we might intervene to prevent natural memory erasure – to improve memory in those who forget too easily. Unless we all have exactly the right amount and accuracy of recall – which would be highly unlikely – the issue of memory modification has to be addressed.

Another normative issue concerns appropriate moral reactions: there may be more and less appropriate ways of responding to significant events.  Suppose that you are hit by a drunk driver and given a treatment to soften the emotional memory at the hospital.  Later you reencounter the driver. Looking back at the event you certainly feel that it was a bad event, but you do not feel the anguish you would perhaps otherwise have felt.  When the driver asks for forgiveness, is there a risk that you would forgive him too easily?  After all, forgiveness is an important moral act that requires us to overcome our indignation or resentment for the sake of our moral values or personal commitments. A failure to feel such emotions may preclude genuine forgiveness.

Moreover, modifying our memories raises the issue of self-knowledge and self- control.  Certain past memories help us infer how we might act when confronted with similar situations in the future.  If we modify these memories, we might deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn how we might act in similar circumstances in the future. 

Being able to modify our memories may affect our moral obligations.  In particular, memories may serve as evidence not only for oneself but for others.  For example, Neil Armstrong’s memory of landing on the moon, or a Holocaust victim’s memory, may not just be evidence for him, but also for the rest of the world. Some of these memories might be so important to others that there is a duty to remember them. If so, unless the memory is very traumatic, there may be a duty not to use certain MMTs that would alter these memories. 

Ultimately, the point of using memory modification for most of us will be to enhance our personal well-being. People should enjoy liberty to use these kinds of technologies unless they harm other people. The real problems regarding MMTs might be the risk of subtle self-harm.  In particular, the inappropriate use of MMTs can deny access to important truths, reduce our self-knowledge, and prevent us from satisfying our obligations to ourselves and to others. This is not to say that MMTs should not be used.  While MMTs could be used in negative or frivolous ways, they could also be used to enrich us by reducing unnecessary pain or making the memories that truly make us ourselves clearer. Indeed, memory enhancement could be used in certain situations. The correct application of MMTs requires actually understanding the role of memories in a person, and that is a highly individual matter. More importantly, it requires that we understand what is a good life for a human being, and the role of memory in that life. There is no obvious answer to that question.

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