The Joys of Brain Scrubbing
The advantages of memory deletion in a collectively omniscient world
The lab rat's lot wasn't easy to begin with, but now it may get worse. At the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, researchers have figured out how to delete rodent memories. According to The New York Times, the SUNY researchers initially teach the rats to negotiate a chamber that shocks their feet if they choose the wrong path. Then, after the rats have learned the right path to take, their brains are injected with a drug called ZIP. The chemical neutralizes PKMzeta, a molecule that plays a crucial but not wholly understood role in memory retention. Once injected, the rats quickly forget their hard-earned knowledge regarding safe routes through the chamber. Every step they take offers a potential shock.
This development has troubling implications. Say the CIA starts torturing lab rats: Who would even know, if the rats retain no recollection of their ordeal? Imagine the crimes sexual predators could get away with if equipped with enough ZIP and a solid grasp of human neocortical columns. And don't even think about what could happen if the fashion industry could erase our memories of parachute pants and belly shirts.
Perhaps because the kind of memory management miracles that neuroscience has in store for us have been the stuff of science fiction, we tend to see their potential impacts through an extremely dramatic lens. On the one extreme, you have conspiracists predicting sinister government campaigns to turn us into docile slaves. On the other, you have idealists promising an end to post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's. In both cases, the presumption is that our imminent neurotechnologies will mostly involve erasing bad, profoundly significant memories. The stuff that wakes us up at night in a cold sweat. The stuff that makes shrinks rich.
But these predictions anticipate only a part of the story. When SUNY's researchers perfect their art to the point where they can erase specific memories as easily as we toss last year's Excel files in the Windows recycling bin, why waste that opportunity on your greatest demons? I'll be asking them to remove all memories of pizza, discovering A.J. Liebling, and riding a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn. It's the good memories I'd like to annihilate, and no doubt millions feel the same. Imagine falling in love for the first time, again and again and again; hearing your all-time favorite album with completely fresh ears; rediscovering the virtues of martinis.
Naysayers portray memory deletion as an easy out, a shortcut, a convenient way to sidestep unpleasantness. But it could also inspire hard work and renewed engagement. Think what it would be like if your mind were scrubbed of all references to your wife, your children, your closest friends. All their tired old tricks would be 100 percent engaging. Their groan-inducing quirks would be amusing, not annoying. And you'd be ready to do whatever it takes to win their love and friendship all over again. Of course, they'd probably have to have their memories stripped of your old bag of tricks too.
Think how much you used to like your job the first few months you spent at it. Think how easy it was to get in early, stay late, put in that extra effort. Erase your discontent, and you might also erase your laziness, your cynicism, your intra-office grudges that reduce productivity and effectiveness.
None of which is to say that using memory erasure as an easy out, a shortcut, or a convenient way to sidestep life's hard lessons is not a perfectly valid way to exercise your cognitive liberty. While it may be true that bad memories help us form our moral consciences by afflicting us with unpleasant emotions such as guilt and regret, it's also true that our natural inclination to forget contributes to our capacity for goodness and redemption as well. If we vividly remembered every time we spoke harshly to someone who didn't deserve it, or lied to a loved one, or spent the whole day goofing off at work, we'd eventually realize how awful we are. We'd grow despondent and indifferent, resigned to our baseness. Instead, we have a crucial capacity for forgetting that allows us to judge ourselves with mercy and compassion, to think of ourselves as generally decent people. And sometimes we actually live up to our faith in ourselves.
That we may soon have the power to strategically enhance our forgetfulness may give us advantages our predecessors lacked, but we also face challenges they never had to confront. Now, thanks to the fact that we've given Google and Facebook the keys to our diaries, our most trivial, spontaneous moments are as indestructible as Egyptian sarcophagi.
And it's not just a matter of self-disclosure. Walk down a city street, and surveillance cameras hound you like you're Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. Your drunken tirades become blog fodder for your friends. Your adventures in small claims court are easily accessible to anyone willing to pay Intellius.com $14.95 for a peek.
Thanks to the Internet, our past is the house guest who won't leave. Antidepressant prescriptions have been rising in exact correlation to Google's growing presence, and no one makes the connection. But how can we be happy when Google won't let us forget our failures and mediocrity? Every day for the rest of his life, infotainment journeyman Pat O'Brien will have easy public access to an audio record of his drunken efforts to seduce an acquaintance's voice mail. Fifty years from now, Alec Baldwin's grandchildren will be able to hear PawPaw calling Mom a "thoughtless little pig."
Memory erasure can't cure such afflictions. At best it can offer only temporary relief. A sexual predator may zap his brain with ZIP to escape the burden of his guilt, but his artificially cleared conscience will only last until he searches Google for his name and ends up on Mugshots.com. Or walks outside and sees the "SEXUAL OFFENDER LIVES HERE" sign posted in his front yard.
Every day, our collective memory, which is to say our collective conscience, grows more omniscient. Dossiers on each of us can be assembled as needed. In April, for example, The New York Observer published an article about Kari Ferrell, an at-large 22-year-old "hipster grifter" who'd been lying and conning her way around Brooklyn and Manhattan for several months and was on the "Most Wanted" list in Salt Lake City for passing bad checks, forgery, and theft. When Gawker.com linked to the story, it asked readers to send in anything they knew about Ferrell, and readers responded with video clips, topless photos, email and text message transcripts, first-person accounts of her exploits, links to her old MySpace profiles, and alleged sightings of her on the streets of Brooklyn. It wasn't enough information to apprehend her (at least as of this writing), but whoever she is currently conning probably has a pretty good idea that he's being swindled by a semi-celebrity.
The exploits we perpetrate may not compare with Ferrell's. The digital trails we leave behind may not be quite as extensive or colorful. But we're all Kari Ferrell, which is to say, we're all Lindsay Lohan now; a vast amount of documentation about us exists, and some of it includes stuff we wish wasn't so permanent, so accessible. In this context, the idea of memory erasure can't help but be appealing. We may no longer be able to escape our rash email tirades, our embarrassing Facebook photos, or our depressing Amazon wish lists, but perhaps we can still find refuge from ourselves inside our minds.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in San Francisco.