Sunday, March 15, 2009

Painful memories

Scientists have discovered a way of erasing emotions associated with a traumatic event in mice, with the precise application of a toxin to those brain cells that contain the bad feelings that accompany the memory. While the memory might remain, the emotions associated with it are wiped out when the cells are destroyed.

The notion is nothing new. For many decades there was a preparation for women in labour called "twilight sleep," a combination of morphine and scopolamine, which suppressed both the actual pain and the memory of it. It's rather out of fashion now, but I believe that my late partner was administered some form of it when an emergency caesarian had to be performed without prior anaesthesia.

Is memory-editing the next step to paradise on earth, or to a dystopic society in which our personal past can be manipulated, optimized, falsified? For it is only a matter of time, I think, before neuroscientists learn not only how to erase memories, but how to implant new ones.

I'm not trying to ring the alarum bells like Margaret Someville, for whom every advance in medicine and genetics threatens damnation. I have no religious agenda here. But there is much to discuss nevertheless: the nature of the self, the part played by memory in our own accounts of ourselves, the effects of selective memory removal on what remains, the use of our own or someone's else's fallible judgement in determining what memory to erase--or to add.

What if we had the choice of possessing implanted memories--a failure could "remember" prodigious successes, a person with an unhappy childhood could be given memories of ideal, loving parents. How would this impinge upon other embodied memories, conscious or unconscious?

As for erasure, would we want to extinguish the feelings that we experience in losing a loved one, for example? Those deep in grief might be tempted. But all that, too, was part of what we were to each other, and a point at which the world changed. Fear the memories and the sense of loss? Be plunged occasionally into deep depression? Certainly. But would we wish these memories simply to disappear? Or, worse, to retain them--and feel nothing?

A minor excursion into consequences here. Comments welcome as always.

1 comment:

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