Memory is the mental ability to retain and remember facts, events, and impressions as well as past experiences. Memories are formed through 3 different stages of encoding, storage and retrieval. When individuals experience events, a network of neurons is activated, and the higher the impact, the stronger the connection. This means that when an individual remembers, the same network of neurons is reactivated. As memories form, synapses appear which increase connections in the brain. Memories can range from all aspects of life and may be associated with different emotions, as emotional responses are remembered more vividly over time (Tyng et al., 2017). Some of these memories remind people of happy times, while others remind them of tragic events. For some individuals, it is easy to let go of bad memories. However,for people who experience certain anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), these memories can greatly affect their everyday lives. Among these disorders, PTSD affects around 8 million adults each year (Griswold and Hull, 2019). Individuals with PTSD are triggered by a frightening event and often experience intrusive memories (flashbacks) that can interfere with their day-to-day functioning.
Whether people should be allowed to forget memories, a principle known as memory-erasing, is up to much debate. Memory erasure would enable people with PTSD to go back to living as they did before the tragic event. This theme of memory erasure has been explored through science fiction films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which the protagonist decides to erase a past relationship. It is important to understand the way memory erasure fits in the field of Neuroethics in either Ethics of Neuroscience or the Neuroscience of Ethics. Ethics of neuroscience can be understood as the set of moral principles associated with neuroscience whereas the neuroscience of ethics can be understood as the different mechanisms within the brain that enable our judgment and decision-making capabilities.
Firstly, memory erasure fits into the Ethics of Neuroscience since guidelines should exist as to who should be able to get their memories altered. There are people who can live with unpleasant memories while others cannot live with their unbearable and tragic memories; therefore, memory erasure should ideally only be considered as a treatment strategy for those whose memories interfere with their daily life, as manipulating memories can hinder one’s autonomy. This is especially relevant considering the fact that drugs and other treatment plans would have to be prescribed by a physician.
Additionally, memory erasing could be dangerous from a historical perspective. One person’s memory of a certain event might have been erased but the other people involved may still remember it. More drastically, due to memory erasure, no one may remember an event, as though the event never happened. This can be especially problematic, as it is important to remember terrible events of the past so that they never happen again.
Another perspective on this topic lies in the criminal justice system, where certain trial witnesses may not want to remember the tragic events they had to endure. However, they may be faced with a certain duty to remember–a moral obligation to keep these memories in order to testify (Lavazza A., 2015). Conversely, the use of these technologies may not always be justified since some soldiers may want to forget their controversial and somewhat immoral actions while stationed at war.
Certain avenues, such as the “Neuroethics Questions to Guide Ethical Research in the International Brain Initiatives,” can offer different perspectives. For example, the question “which applications might be considered misuse or best uses beyond the laboratory?” (Rommelfanger K. S. et al., 2018) addresses the fact that in radical cases, individuals could erase memories after committing a crime such as a terrorist attack or rape. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge safety concerns that would be associated with such technology. The intervention to erase someone’s memory has a possibility of affecting memories that did not have the intent of being erased. As memories are often also linked to one another, so that more than one memory would have to be erased in order to completely forget an event, this concern is not far-fetched. Such an intervention would be irreversible. The research on risks associated with memory erasure has been limited up to this point. Any drug or neurotechnology that would be able to erase any kind of memory will bring up the issue of distributive justice as this intervention will likely be costly and only obtainable to certain people.
Additionally, memory erasure can also fit in the Neuroscience of Ethics as erasing one’s memory might change one’s personal identity, and therefore, their decision-making abilities. Memories can impact an individual’s future actions, as learning from mistakes committed in the past can prevent the same mistakes in the future. Furthermore, memory erasure can also affect the authenticity of an individual’s life because it would impact their understanding of how the world works (Kolber A., 2006). Research is currently being conducted on removing only the disturbing portion of the memory, and leaving the remaining parts,which will undoubtedly impact one’s personhood but also the people that surround them in their everyday lives (Fink A., 2019). We can also analyze the use of propranolol which is a beta-blocker that blocks the consolidation of emotional valence that is associated with memories; this would therefore reduce PTSD patients’ emotional responses when recalling frightening events. Ultimately, this intervention does not completely erase the memory but instead affects the emotional connection. Propranolol is less effective in PTSD patients who have been suffering for longer periods of time and can also impact their ability to detect emotional reactions with the people around them.
In conclusion, memory erasure is a complex neuroethical concern relating to the principles of autonomy, safety, distributive justice, moral obligation, authenticity, and personal identity. These different concepts ultimately question our authority to change our brains at will. In order for this technology to be possible, ethical guidelines should be mandated, perhaps restricting access to only individuals who desperately need it. Additional research is being conducted on rats in the hopes of finding strategies to fully achieve memory erasure. These studies incorporate new perspectives such as the mutant of protein kinase M zeta which makes it possible to relearn the erased components as it may maintain synaptic long-term potentiation and long-term memory. It will be interesting to see what new technologies for memory-erasing in humans will appear in the next few years.
Edited by Rishab Bhatt & Jisu Yang
Posted by Daisy Li
Fink A. (2019) Fanon’s Police Inspector, AJOB Neuroscience, 10:3, 137-144, DOI: 10.1080/21507740.2019.1632970
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Rommelfanger, K. S., Jeong, S. J., Ema, A., Fukushi, T., Kasai, K., Ramos, K. M., . . . Singh, I. (2018). Neuroethics Questions to Guide Ethical Research in the International Brain Initiatives. Neuron, 100(1), 19-36. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2018.09.021
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Can We Erase Bad Memories? (2016, January 21). Retrieved March 28, 2020, from https://psychology.ucdavis.edu/news/erasing-bad-memories