Thursday, November 04, 2010

Erasing Memories

According to a report in the Baltimore SUN on Tuesday, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have been working on deleting memories of frightening events from the brains of mice. "Removing a protein from the region of the brain responsible for recalling fear means they can permanently delete traumatic memories." If this process can eventually be applied to human beings, scientists may be able to erase the memories of traumatic events. Not just eliminate the emotion of fear, not soften the memory, but get rid of the fear by obliterating recall of the event that induced it. Richard L. Huganir, a neuroscience professor, hopes this technique may become usable along with traditional therapy to cure the debilitating effect of severe post-traumatic stress in human patients.

A worthy goal, but is that the way we really want PTSD healed? If the emotional pain could be softened or removed while the memories themselves remained, wouldn't most sufferers prefer that outcome? (I think I would.) Doesn't losing important pieces of memory amount to losing parts of the self? The assumption of therapists who try to "recover" supposedly buried memories of horrific experiences seems to be that burying the memories has an emotionally crippling effect and uncovering them leads to liberation. (Irrelevant, for this topic, is the question of whether most if not all "recovered memories" are iatrogenic, as I believe they are, based on what I've read. But the point is still valid.) The idea of selectively erasing records stored in the brain brings to mind lots of dystopic science fiction. Wouldn't choosing to forget important parts of one's life, no matter how painful, mean choosing to live in an illusion? Speculative fiction writers have been warning us against that kind of "happiness" at least as far back as BRAVE NEW WORLD.

I tried to find a link by searching the Baltimore SUN page but didn't have any luck. It's a short article, anyway, without many details other than what I've mentioned.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. This has provided much food for thought, both of books I've read and a wip that is currently percolating in my Muse's mind. Thank you for this!

  2. Margaret: Oh, that's dangerous ground.

    How could you target a particular fear-memory and not just wipe all of them?

    Without memory of being afraid, then living through the event, then LEARNING - how will you assess future challenges?

    Oh, this is like prefrontal lobotomy.

  3. Coincidentally, I'm currently brainstorming a possible fantasy novel about a heroine who has had most of her past erased and replaced with false memories, for her own safety. When she finds out the truth, she is very indignant.

  4. Ohmigoodness, there are so many interconnections in the human mind. What if a memory is erased and one day the person wakes up terrified for no reason she can think of? It's a house of cards. Take out one and the house begins to crumble.

    In the story I'm putting finishing touches on, a character suppresses the Heroine's memory because he's ashamed that she's seen him weak. Coincidentally, she also forgets about falling in love with the hero and why she shouldn't go out with the guy who will turn out to be the villain. So, this guy, who likes her and wants to be friends, ends up doing something which leads to her become trapped in a dangerous situation with a lot less help than she might've had.

    So, memory erasing makes great story fodder, but I think it's a bad idea in real life.