What if you could forget a bad memory by taking a pill? It seems like a weird question, but as this article in this month’s edition of Wired makes clear, it’s a question that’s probably going to become a very real one for a lot of people within our lifetimes. Scientists have basically figured out how memories work—contrary to popular belief, they’re not like files you just pull out and then put away but in fact are rewritten every time you remember them—and once they realized that, they realized that they had a working idea of how to literally erase a memory. And not like in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, either. They believe they can get really specific, targeting a single incident that a person wants to forget. The most obvious application of this technology would be to treat people with PTSD, but it could also be used to curb drug addiction or phantom pain.
I think most people, when they hear about this kind of technology, immediately dismiss it out of hand as dystopian, but I want to make the case for it. I think people should have the option to erase a memory if they want. Call me pro-choice on memory erasure. These are my reasons why:
1) Memory isn’t as sacrosanct as people think. People tend to think of memories as perfect recollections of things how they actually happened. We accept that they fade over time, but we generally don’t think they’re untrustworthy. But as this article shows, actually memory is a pretty shitty system, as could be expected of a system that evolved in a patchwork style. There’s a very good-enough-ness quality to how memory actually works. The memory you want to wipe is probably all corrupt and incorrect anyway, making its value less than you might initially think. Human brains are simply not great places to store important information. Not only do they store memories in an inefficient way that corrupts the data, but they degrade and eventually die, which terminates the memory altogether. This is why humans have, throughout our entire history, tried to devise better ways to remember stuff than simply putting it in our brains. We invented writing, the printing press, and now computers mainly so that we can remember stuff that our brains are shitty at recalling. We already know on some level that there’s no special reason that memories have to be stored in the brain and nowhere else, so why not purge a memory that is legitimately causing a person problems?
2) Just because a memory isn’t stored in your brain doesn’t mean it’s gone. I think some people think of memory erasure and they think that it’s the same thing as pretending something never happened in the first place. (The “Eternal Sunshine” idea.) But that’s not exactly how this would play out. If you’ll read the article, you’ll see that the people that are doing memory-softening trials right now actually write down their memories at the beginning of treatment, and then reread the memories as part of the treatment. If they develop a pill that can target and wipe a specific memory, I imagine this is how it will play out: You’ll wipe the memory but have it stored in written form that you can then reread later so that the you know that it did happen and can act accordingly. For instance, imagine you were in a terrible car accident where a passenger was killed, and you can’t stop replaying the horror in your head over and over. You take the pill, and forget the accident. Then you read a summary of what happened. You still have the general idea of it—you know and feel that this happened to you—but the visceral horror isn’t attached to it anymore.
3) Fears that people will be irresponsible with this are way overblown. The fear—again, stoked by “Eternal Sunshine”—is that people will run around erasing any unpleasant memory willy-nilly, and with it, they won’t remember important lessons, etc. This fear misunderstans how most people think of themeselves and their memories. In reality, most people are attached to their negative memories, precisely because they feel those memories are an important part of who they are. Listen to how people actually talk about bad experiences. Very little “I wished that never happened” and a lot more “well, that sucked, but I’m glad I went through it and really, I wouldn’t change a thing, because it made me the person I am today”. Most people are glad to remember ugly break-ups, stupid fights, and even embarrassing mistakes, because they feel it’s prevention against that ever happening again. When it comes to other bad experiences, such as being really sick, that aren’t our faults, we still tend to cling to the memory. If nothing else, the time you threw up all over (fill in something really embarrassing) makes a great story.
These technologies are intended for and will be used by people who have a memory that is crippling them. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no joke; symptoms range from insomnia to paranoia to fear or sadness so crippling that the patient can’t leave the house. Jobs are lost, marriages break up, and sufferers often resort to suicide. Purging their brain of the memory and putting it on paper where it can’t hurt them is an act of mercy. Again, it’s not like the patient will be unaware that they were in war/were raped/escaped from a tower on 9/11. They will know this and be familiar with all the relevant details, after they read it on paper. All that will really be missing is the feelings of fear and pain that are attached to the original biological memory.
The arc when strange new technologies come out is that people are fearful and prone to wild theorizing about how this is the one that other people are just going to wildly misuse and all sorts of terrible, dystopian things will happen. And then those things don’t happen and slowly but surely, the fears calm down. Eventually, we stop thinking of the technology as “technology” and just think of it as the thing that always was. It’s okay to have a little faith in your fellow man, especially when it comes to things like giving them right to make very personal choices on complex matters. That’s true of abortion, and it’s true of something as deeply personal as handling mental health issues like persistent and troubling memories.