Thanks for the Lack of Memories?


The New York Times is reporting that neuroscience researchers at Brooklyn's SUNY Downstate Medical Center have developed a drug which can erase memories (at least in lab rats). This development may bring us closer to the scenario outlined in the the 2004 Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet vehicle, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which two hapless lovers have the memories of their failed love affair erased. As the Times reports:

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit. 

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

So far, the research has been done only on animals. But scientists say this memory system is likely to work almost identically in people.

Such a power raises ethical questions:

"This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities and raises huge ethical issues," said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. "On the one hand, you can imagine a scenario in which a person enters a setting which elicits traumatic memories, but now has a drug that weakens those memories as they come up. Or, in the case of addiction, a drug that weakens the associations that stir craving."…

Yet any such drug, Dr. Hyman and others argue, could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience.

With regard to the relation between a moral conscience and memory, it would seem that the sort of person who commits heinous crimes is the sort of person who can already overcome the aversion that might be sparked by the memory of his victims' sufferings, or may actually enjoy such memories.

The Times notes that research on erasing memories may also shed light on how to strengthen them. The article then goes on to worry that if a pill that enhances memory becomes available that a memory arms race might break out, enabling some people to outcompete others. Actually, this seems more like a recipe for making people with poor or failing memories more equal to those who have steel trap memories naturally. In addition, there may be network effects that boost everyone's productivity simply because we all live and work in a world of people whose memories are better. 

Whole New York Times article here. Go here for an earlier discussion on the morality of erasing memories.