Am I allowed to throw away *my* memories: does memory editing threaten human identity?

A paper has recently been published demonstrating that a previously learned fearful reaction can be weakened using a drug. The aim of the research is to ameliorate PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, where traumatic experiences cause an ongoing state of anxiety and stress reactions. In the media it of course became "drug can erase bad memories" and "Pill to erase bad memories: Ethical furore over drugs 'that threaten human identity'". Are we getting close to a memory eraser pill, and would it pose any ethical challenges?

It is still early days in this kind of research, as the NHS behind the headlines blog notes. It was a small study using volunteers who merely suffered an electric shock whenever they saw a particular stimulus. Their "fear" was then measured by how much they startled when hearing loud noises. The next day, they were either given placebo or propranolol before seeing the stimuli again. On the third day their fearfulness towards the stimuli was measured again, and lo and behold, the reaction of the propranolol group had decreased compared to the placebo group. This complements earlier studies that have explored giving propranolol to patients after car accidents, trying to reduce the incidence of PTSD.

Assuming this works, so what? I think few people object to avoiding PTSD. But extrapolating far beyond what we can currently do, it seems to point towards editing memory. And that worries many.

Dr Daniel Sokol, a lecturer in medical ethics at St George's,
University of London, said to the Daily Mail:

"Removing bad memories is not like removing
a wart or a mole. It will change our personal identity since who we are
is linked to our memories. … It may perhaps be beneficial in some cases, but before eradicating
memories, we must reflect on the knock-on effects that this will have
on individuals, society and our sense of humanity."

I have written a paper together with Matthew Liao about this issue (open access). For a popular take on it, see our blog entry Spotless Minds on ABC unleashed. I think we are far less worried about memory editing than Sokol is.

How much does changing our memories change our personal identity? At first this seems to be obvious: isn't our identity intimately built up by our autobiographical story? Any change to it would change our identity, and might force us to live a lie. But identities and memories are far more fluid than most people recognize. Even people with memory loss retain much of their identity. We do not remember how things actually were, but rather reconstruct events based on current emotions, knowledge and personality. Research has demonstrated that it is surprisingly easy to induce false memories, even of extreme events, and that this may occur accidentally. It seems likely that many of our reminiscences are not very truthful in the first place, even when they are strongly autobiographical. Twins often dispute ownership of particular memories. A dramatic case is that of the author Rigoberta Menchú, whose autobiography was found to be historically inaccurate even in intensively emotional parts – yet she argued that it was her truth and that she had a right to her memories. So instead of regarding memory editing as uniquely threatening human identity it might be better to ask how it would fit in with the memory and identity change we are already doing. It seems that as long as memory editing is not used coercively it is likely to just reinforce our identity-changing.

Besides, not all identities are healthy or worth preserving. Changing an identity as a serial killer to a non-serial killer might be far better than executing or indefinitely incarcerating the killer. If I find myself harboring racist or cruel traits that are incompatible with my otherwise humanist personality, I might become a more coherent and kind person by somehow altering these dark sides. In fact, reshaping our identities is a large part of what normal adults do all their lives. We wish to be certain kinds of people, and we admire the people who become better people. There might be better ways of doing this than memory editing (for example, we often value the complexity of experience many people gain from their struggle to overcome bad sides), but memory editing cannot be rejected out of hand.

What are the likely effects on individuals, society and humanity? Perhaps the most subtle ethical issue with the memory alteration is that it might affect how we blame or forgive people (including ourselves). If a traumatic experience is remembered as less horrific, might not the victim be more ready to forgive an offender? If a soldier is treated for PTSD, might he not too easily accept what he has done rather than rue it? But the value of an appropriate level of forgiveness or remorse is unlikely to be so far above the value of not suffering that one should never intervene to reduce the suffering. Leaving a rape victim to suffer just so she can fully hate her rapist seems absurd.

Much of our memories are also socially embodied: others remember what happened and will react to this knowledge – this is why it is so hard to impose factually incorrect memories, or permanently keep painful knowledge away. More and more of our societal memory also resides in digital form rather than in our brains, where it is already highly editable. Maybe ensuring that our societal memories are truthful is a far more serious moral challenge than editing our own memories.

We live surrounded by information that manipulate us, deliberately or accidentally. Most adults recognize this and try to be suitably critical of what they see (although this is rarely enough: we tend to be overconfident in our own critical abilities). We should be similarly critical of our own memories, since they are both fallible, biased and often fictional. Deliberate memory modification is not going to change this. Just as the presence of Photoshop and special effects have made us more cautious in believing pictures and films to depict the absolute truth, I think memory will rather make us more aware of the fluidity of memory – and the need to safeguard it so that it is ours.

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