Which Memory Can I Erase For You Today?

By Megan Patiry on February 15, 2014

In 2004, Joel Barish decided to have the memory of his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski, erased. He was confused, devastated and enraged when he’d gone in for the procedure, having discovered days before that Clementine had already erased him. He’d felt removing her in return wasn’t the ideal form of revenge, but it was all he had. However, after Joel underwent the procedure and his memories started to disappear, he began to re-experience the positive memories of Clementine that were buried deeper, and realized in shock that he didn’t want to let them go. Joel was running in his mind, but the procedure was done. He’d run out of memories.

Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski were characters in a plot of the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, played by Jim Carey and Kate Winslet. Their characters may have been science fiction, but the plot element of the film, the removal of targeted memories, is now science fact.

In a study published in the journal Cell, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced in January of this year that they had successfully erased a targeted memory in mice. This study follows the institute’s successful implantation of a false memory and the activation of a real memory, also in mice, and highlights their quest to discover cures for traumatic memories and disorders such as Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) in humans. This sounds great, right? Why wouldn’t we want our scientists to help individuals struggling with harmful memories?

Photo by paulsvmarsden via Flickr.

Although the studies are only now taking place on mice, they bring many ethical questions of memory to the forefront, and also question patient accessibility to this type of treatment in the future, since it involves the use of a future prescription drug to remove the unwanted memories.

In an article from the Boston Globe“scientists reported that a single dose of an experimental drug combined with behavioral therapy could help mice forget a traumatic event that took place in the distant past.”

The drug, referred to as a class of HDAC inhibitors, was given to a group of mice being put through re-exposure therapy, a therapy common in the treatment of PTSD that involves exposing the patient to their fear trigger in a safe setting. For the mice, this involved being placed in a box or exposed to a sound in conjunction with a foot shock, causing them to fear the box or sound. Then, they were exposed to the box or sound without the shock, erasing the memory while it was still recent. This treatment didn’t work as well for distance memories, however, until the researchers combined it with the experimental drug. They found that the drug combined with the therapy caused the mice to become “markedly better at forgetting that the tone or box signaled pain.”

They also found, as stated in the Boston Globe article, that the drug caused changes at the cellular level of the brain, inducing “changes in the metabolism and connectivity of brain cells.”

Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT and one of the leading researchers in the study, is mentioned in the article as having “hopes that the work on using HDAC inhibitors to erase memories … will spur pharmaceutical companies to try developing drugs that use the same approach.”

These “hopes” are what bring ethics into question regarding these types of studies and treatments. Most individuals worldwide, scientists or not, fully realize the power of modern medicine and its value in society. The amount of lifesaving treatments available to the general population is outstanding and does, indeed, deserve tremendous respect. However, when studies successfully plant false memories and erase painful experiences, and then subsequently have hopes of handing this power over to pharmaceutical companies for prescription use, we should pause and ask ourselves if our society is prepared for it.

“Prescription drug abuse,” the Center for Disease Control said, “is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States.”

To bring this into perspective, one in five Americans, approximately 50 million adults, take prescription psychiatric, mind-altering drugs. That figure is just within the legal sector: another 22 million are on illegal drugs of the same form, plus that of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Round up the amount of alcoholics and individuals with alcohol problems – 18 million – and you have roughly 100 million individuals living in an altered state.

According to the same report from the CDC, most of the drug overdoses in this country have been caused by the use of a group of prescription drugs called opioid analgesics, like those of Vicodin, Oxytocin and Oxycodone (to name a few). These drugs, according to WedMd, “… suppress your perception of pain and calm your emotional response to pain.”

Here we have millions of Americans legally and illegally dulling their pain through the use of these medications, and a good percentage of the remaining indulging in alcohol to do the same. Viewing these statistics, who’s to say that sometime in the future, memory-wiping drugs become available in prescription form, and the population (in terrible shape due to their “painful memories”) start erasing them completely?

This is not to discount the traumatic effects of PTSD and similar disorders or suggest that our researchers stop pursuing cures for mental health disorders. It is also not about grand conspiracy theories involving our scientists and the government wiping our minds, but we do have to realize that past science fiction has become science fact, and parts of conspiracy-like works have become reality (1984, George Orwell and the NSA Spying parallels).

This is to take a long, hard look at our future and ask ourselves if memory-wiping is what the future needs to hold. This is to ask what it means to live a rounded life, and what it means to make and learn from our mistakes. Traumatic memories can be painful, even extremely so, but they are also what shape us as individuals. They involve failure, rejection and tears, but they also build strength, resilience and understanding. Should we erase our mistakes and our pains, only to make the same mistakes again because we haven’t learned from them? Should we erase a few more memories of being bullied in childhood because they are nearly as traumatic as PTSD?

Virginia Hughes, writer for Popular Science, wrote in an article, “The idea of scientists manipulating memory does, naturally, sound a bit creepy … but it also points to some possible good: treatment for millions of people tormented by real memories.”

“And that’s something worth remembering,” she wrote.

Memories are a fact of life and an essential component; they are tied to us not only in our minds, but in our bodies; our feelings, instincts and impulses are a memories’ entire package. Without a memory to go along with our guts, will we wander through parts of our lives confused, unable to understand why we feel the way we do because we truly can’t remember … because we willingly erased it from our minds?

Like the fictional Joel Barish realized too late, spotless minds may be something worth running from.



Megan is a freelance writer, organic foodie, health activist, and spontaneous traveler. She also has a passion for adventure, hiking, yoga, and paradoxically, chocolate in all its raw, gluten-free forms.

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