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The pill to banish painful memories—forget it!

It is a curious feature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that the media regales readers and viewers almost daily with exciting details of breakthroughs in medical science: new cures, reversals of previous certainties about old remedies (and then, often enough, later reversals of the reversals), astonishing information about our brains and numerous other organs, apparently dramatic discoveries about free will and ethical thinking. Much of this is indeed attributable to the rapid rate of the expansion of contemporary scientific understanding which we should not want to underestimate, but it is also sometimes the result of the media’s excitability and search for sensation, combined with the impressive self-promotional skills of practitioners of the medical sciences. This latter factor means that reported “breakthroughs” are often no more than confident early steps on a promising but uncertain path, and when they lead nowhere this sad news tends not to see the light of day. And then there are the cases of outright fraud or incompetence, such as the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s initially much-proclaimed breakthroughs in the early 2000s in stem cell research that were shown to be faked.

So a certain reserve about reported breakthroughs is in order, but a recent case is worth philosophical scrutiny even if its claims turn out to be less valid than they seem. This was a report in The Mail Online, Science and Technology section that was headlined “Could Pill wipe out bad memories? Drug used to treat multiple sclerosis found to help us forget experiences that caused us pain.” But it turns out that the drug has only been tested for memory erasure of pain in mice, and then only of a specific type of pain associated with mild electric shock. The Mail article jumps rapidly from this modest beginning to claim that the experiment “offers hope of a drug that could eradicate memories of traumatic events from years ago and help patients overcome phobias, eating disorders and even sexual hang-ups.” For none of this “hope” is there an iota of evidence in the scientific study and one of the scientists involved in the study at the Commonwealth University of Virginia, Dr Sarah Spiegel, showing appropriate modesty, said of the drug concerned: ‘Fingolimod, a Food and Drug Administration approved drug for treatment of multiple sclerosis, has beneficial effects in the central nervous system that are not yet well understood.” More ambitiously she added: “Fingolimod deserves consideration as an adjuvant therapy for post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders.”

Of course, all sorts of things may deserve consideration, but there are a huge number ahead of fingolimod in the queue for consideration. But in any case the idea that we should greet with enthusiasm a pill that can eradicate memories of pain or trauma needs scrutiny. There are four problems with such enthusiasm that should qualify any simple project for eliminating painful memories:

1. Pains come in many different shapes, sizes and styles. Perhaps some don’t deserve to be called pain at all but if we use the expression ”pain” to cover all sorts of suffering and “trauma”, then it isn’t at all clear (to put it mildly) that some slight electric shock item will have the same neural status and be subject to the same memory elimination as the suffering involved in grief, or unemployment, or humiliation or the extreme stress of training and striving for success in sport.

2. Even considering simple physical pains, it is often important to remember them for a variety of reasons. One is to avoid in future the sort of occasion that created the pain, which is partly why Rousseau in Emile thought it a good idea to let children have the educative experience of pain (though he was principally concerned to instil courage.) Another is to be able to recall the type and intensity of a given pain so that it can be described, for example, to a doctor as an element to figure in a diagnosis of illness or injury or to compare with some current pain for diagnostic purposes.

3. But beyond simpler physical pains, the area of human suffering can involve deeply important facets of our being in such ways that taking a memory pill to eliminate the recollection of that pain in an instant would be a denial of matters of great value. Take the pain of grief, for example: to eliminate deliberately the memory of that pain is to disvalue to some degree the sense of loss of the loved person and with it the depth that their presence had in our lives. This is not to deny that while the pain of grief lasts, it can be debilitating and in some cases damaging so that easing of the pain by medication or distraction may be necessary. But we are discussing the prospect of elimination of the very memory of it, and this is another matter altogether.

4. A related point is that anxiety and post-traumatic stress are not necessarily “disorders”. It depends a lot on the nature of the ‘painful” thoughts and recollections that generate distress or disturbance of calm. Sometimes the post-traumatic stress that soldiers experience during and after war is the result of their being involved in committing war crimes or in having been put in ghastly situations by incompetent or vicious commanders. While their pain and distress need attention and relieving, their memories of these events may well serve an important function both morally and political. Well-intentioned pills that eliminated such memories might well impede moral and political progress and cater to the complacency that some political and military leaders would welcome.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I just wanted to comment on the fourth ethical concern that you list, the worry that the loss of memories of traumatic events might impede moral and political progress. This is a worry that I’ve had myself when considering the implications of memory-regulating treatments that might be developed in the future. Would such treatment make it psychologically easier for soldiers to kill and commit atrocities – in the same manner that, say, unmanned drones or long-range missiles do?
    Firstly, it is difficult to deny that PTSD is a psychiatric disorder: it is not statistically normal, affecting a minority of those who experience traumatic events (it has been associated with low cortisol levels (1)); and it can severely impact a sufferer’s functioning in day-to-day life. Regardless of the value of PTSD as a stimulus for moral or political change, it is not medically ethical to refuse to develop or use treatments for a psychiatric condition for such reasons. That kind of argument runs the risk of treating PTSD sufferers as a political football. Surely the amelioration of individuals’ suffering takes priority over more impersonal moral or political goals?
    There is the argument, though, that the use of memory-regulating treatments on combatants and non-combatants in wars could amount to perverting the course of justice, if it led to the elimination of memories of victims, witnesses or perpetrators of war crimes.

    (1) Aardal-Eriksson E, Eriksson TE, Thorell LH (2001). “Salivary cortisol, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and general health in the acute phase and during 9-month follow-up”. Biol. Psychiatry 50 (12): 986–93

  2. Thank you William for your comment. I’m sorry if I gave the impression that Post-traumatic stress disorder was not a medical condition and shouldn’t be treated. Of course it can be a dreadful condition and it needs treatment. I didn’t deny that. What I actually said should, however, have been clearer. I meant to say (and partly did say) was that some anxiety and distress subsequent upon trauma needn’t be a medical disorder, though a lot is, and that even where it is severe and needs medical attention as a disorder it shouldn’t always be treated solely as such, since the causes of the distress may be acts of wrong-doing (either by the person or by others) that need to be acknowledged as such and not “medicalized” away.

    Thanks for the point about the use of forgetting pills or the like in war situations. I should have mentioned that because the use of drugs to make soldiers immune to the killing they do is already a problem in the moral theory and practice of war.

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