Drinking from the Lethe: Memory Erasing is No Longer a Myth
Javanna N. Obregon
Illustration � Davel Hamue 2010
Looking like Lethe, see! the lake
A conscious slumber seems to take,
And would not, for the world, awake.
-The Sleeper, Edgar Allen Poe
At the beginning of the 20th century, neurologist Sigmund Freud (1989) developed the concept of the unconscious, a deeply buried nook in the brain where memories are stored. According to Freud (1989), these memories cannot always be recalled, but can still affect personality, behavior, and decision-making at a subconscious level. In fact, psychologists agree that the repression of negative memories can lead to the development of neurosis (Weiten, 2007). Freud (1989) believed that by bringing unconscious memories to the surface, personal growth and self-actualization could be achieved. But what if there was a simpler process? What if these negative memories could be erased? Could those troubled by painful memories receive a second chance at happiness, or would a quintessential aspect of personality be lost?
Recently, a group of scientists from Brooklyn’s SUNY Downstate Medical Center may have made the mythical process of memory erasing a reality (Carey, 2009). According to the New York Times, a team of researchers, led by Dr. Todd Sacktor, discovered the function of enzyme PKMzeta in memory storage against an antagonist drug called ZIP (Carey, 2009). Joining forces with Dr. Andre A. Fenton of SUNY Downstate’s Spatial Memory Department, Dr. Sacktor’s team found that when they injected lab rats with ZIP, the drug interfered with memory recall and consolidation (Carey, 2009; "Erasing Your Memories", 2009). Once injected, the rats could no longer recall memories of learned behaviors, such as positions of shocking devices in a maze that they had remembered consistently throughout a four-month period (Carey, 2009). Spurring great psychological debate, Dr. Sacktor’s team believes that this same process can be duplicated in humans (Carey, 2009).
From further experimentation with rats, Dr. Sacktor and his team learned that ZIP almost immediately erases specific memories without interfering with either short- or long-term memory construction ("Erasing Your Memories", 2009).
As an enzyme, PKMzeta "catalyze[s] very specific chemical reactions and can be rapidly inhibited" ("Erasing Your Memories", 2009). With ZIP creating these very specific reactions of synaptic proteins, Dr. Sacktor and his team believe they are capable of using ZIP to inhibit PKMzeta, thereby erasing precise memories without any damage to the surrounding cortical areas ("Erasing Your Memories", 2009). Impressively, ZIP also appears to permanently erase memories. Three months after being injected, Dr. Sacktor’s rats still cannot recall the correct path through the maze, even if they are given hints and reminders ("Erasing Your Memories", 2009). Dr. Sacktor suggests a three-month memory lapse in rats is equivalent to approximately a decade in human years (Carey, 2009b).
Once the exact process is perfected, Dr. Sacktor and his team believe that memory erasing holds many potential benefits for psychological wellbeing (Dwyer, 2009). They suggest that better control over memories could lead to the treatment of addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Carey, 2009) along with a series of other neurological and mental health disorders ("Erasing Your Memories," 2009). This research may be beneficial in treating addiction and trauma, as well as improving the ways in which people learn and remember ("Erasing Your Memories," 2009). Through Dr. Sacktor’s research, those afflicted by painful memories can have a fresh start with a simple injection, followed by the doctor’s reassuring words: you won’t feel a thing.
Advocates against memory erasing argue just that you won’t feel a thing. According to Freud (1989), memories are the basis of individual opinions and preferences, influencing choices and personality. For instance, someone who was bitten by a dog as a child might have a different opinion about dogs than someone who was rescued by one. Hence, memory erasing has the potential to change a part of an individual’s interpretation of the world. It is almost as if a person is choosing to erase what makes him or her unique. Researchers agree that people are different because of the subjectivity of perception (Weiten, 2007). Even sensory information, such as color perception and touch sensation, differ depending on both genetics and experience (Weiten, 2007). In other words, no two people experience the world in the same way, and without the memory of specific life events, a distinct perspective is lost. After years of composing a unique identity, the advent of memory erasing procedures has the potential to eliminate the product of all those life events.
Furthermore, psychologists suggest that the ways in which people shape and edit memories contributes to their individuality. Many in the scientific community have found that memory is not as reliable as one may think. Studies show that memory regularly edits itself in order to make experiences fit into an individual’s mental model of the world (Ash, 2009; Choi & Choi, 2010). Memory is also subject to change as a result of hindsight bias, the inclination to think something will happen because it’s happened before, and the influence of interpersonal relationships in the form of suggestions from others (Weiten, 2007). For instance, when a witness to a car accident is asked to describe the scene, they may report seeing broken glass despite its absence. The witness is not intentionally lying. Through the power of suggestion and the mind’s editing process to fit pre-existing models of what should have happened, the witness believes he or she actually experienced the event as he or she described.
Based on the subjectivity of memory, many psychologists see no harm in erasing memories considering their fallibility. But is it not subjectivity that creates individuality? The way people interpret and incorporate events shape their outlook. Most importantly, it is from memories, both good and bad, that we learn from our mistakes and achievements. Freud never wanted memories erased; he wanted them brought to the surface, acknowledged, and worked through, in order to better understand one’s self and one’s behavior (Weiten, 2007).
Another significant disadvantage of memory erasing is the possibility that it would make personal growth more difficult to achieve. In an interview with Dr. Sacktor, a man only known as James W. argued just that when he said, "I’m in general disciplined to promote any kind of ignorance-even if that ignorance would make a person happier. We learn from the past right? Well, we’re suppose to and sometimes it is learning from painful memories that we become better people," ("Erasing Your Memories," 2009). Although Dr. Sacktor responded to the statement by assuring that the process is effective and safe, he failed to directly address this concern ("Erasing Your Memories," 2009, p.2). Learning and experience are certainly essential to personal growth. Weiten (2007) claims, "The adaptation process initiated by stress may lead to personal changes that are changes for the better. Confronting and conquering a stressful challenge may lead to improvements in specific coping abilities and to an enhanced self concept" (p. 388). Though research has asserted the positive potential of memories, even negative ones, Dr. Sacktor fails to acknowledge their importance.
Memory erasing has the potential to alleviate many psychological disorders such as trauma, phobias, and addiction. However, as a society, by erasing memories we would lose that which allows us to learn, progress, and define ourselves. Most importantly, memories and experiences create a basis for each individual’s worldview interpretation. They shape us into the people we are today and influence who we will be in the future. Memory erasing does sound like a quick fix for psychological issues, but at what cost? As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, but regardless of how "blissful" we feel, that happiness would be based on a lie. Worst of all, that lie is one we would have told ourselves, so can we really call it happiness?
Ash, I. K. (2009). Surprise, memory, and retrospective judgment making: Testing cognitive reconstruction theories of the hindsight bias effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35, 916-933.
Carey, B. (2009, April 5). Brain researchers open door to editing memory. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/health/research/06brain.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=memory%20erasing&st=cse
Choi, D. W., & Choi, I. (2010). A comparison of hindsight bias in groups and individuals: The moderating role of plausibility. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(2), 325-343.
Dwyer, J. (2009, April 8). Memories: Good, bad and erasable. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/
Erasing your memories. (2009, April 13). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/ 04/13/memoryerasing/?scp=1&sq=memory%20erasing&st=cse
Freud, S., & Gay, P. (Eds.). (1989). The Freud reader. New York: Norton.
Poe, E.A. (1985) Edgar Allen Poe: Selected works. New York: Random House.
Weiten, W. (2007). Psychology: Themes and variations (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.