In his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.”1 A diary, of course, theoretically records the entire spectrum of your existence during a particular time period — the good, the bad, the happy and the sad. But what if you want to “edit” your life diary so that it only contains pages filled with sunshine? What if you want to delete the bad memories entirely, and forever?
For years, scientists have been working to find a way to extract traumatic memories from the brain. Some new research out of UCLA indicates that the quest might be nearing closure. According to an article in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers recently removed memory from a primitive snail called Aplysia, as well as from neurons in a petri dish.2 While snail memory might seem far removed from human memory, according to Dr. David Glanzman, who worked on the study, “Almost all the processes that are involved in memory in the snail also have been shown to be involved in memory in the brains of mammals.”
The research consisted of inhibiting a particular molecule that expedites communication between neurons in the brain. The molecule, called PKM (protein kinase M), lacks an “on/off switch,” and so, apparently, retains a long-term impression of whatever gets imprinted on it. “Once PKM is formed, there is no way to shut it off,” said Glanzman. “Once it is activated, PKM’s continual activity maintains a memory until PKM degrades.”
The research team, however, found that they could shut down PKM function in snails by injecting them with a “magic” memory-erasing chemical. They tormented the snails with electric shocks, found that the snails retained a memory of the trauma and recoiled for at least 50 seconds when later touched. The scientists then injected the snails with the “magic” chemical. The injected snails reacted like snails that had never been shocked, recoiling only a few seconds after being handled.
But the snail experiments targeted undifferentiated mollusk memory, and so the question we must ask is whether particular human memories could be targeted and wiped out, rather than huge chunks of memory at a time? Could Scarlett O’Hara, for instance, erase the miserable memory of Rhett Butler saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” while retaining the happy memory of when he said to her, “You should be kissed, and often, by someone who knows how.”3
Glanzman says, “I think [in the future] we will be able to go into one’s brain, identify the location of the memory of a traumatic experience and try to dampen it down. We can do this in culture, and there is no essential difference between the synapse in culture and the synapse in your brain…. Once we know the neural circuit that contains the memory, then we need a selective way to inhibit the activity of PKM in that circuit.”
Obviously, the possibility that we will be able someday to manipulate memories has profound medical, psychological, and political implications. Science fiction has long had a love affair with this concept, as movies like The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind attest. In that film, the lead character electively erases all memory of a former love with unfortunate results, and certainly, if we really do become able to permanently delete memories at will, the dangers pointed to in that film might come to fruition.4 And the film Paycheck,5 based on the short story by Philip K. Dick, offers an even more vivid example of the dangers of deliberate memory erasure. Also, there’s always the possibility of surgeries going awry, as so many do, and erasing the wrong memories. That said, there are huge potential upsides, including the possibility of freeing those suffering from PTSD from the weight of carrying their trauma throughout their lives, the great effectiveness of memory control in reducing addictive urges, and also, the hope that the research could help find an Alzheimer’s cure.
While Dr. Glanzman makes it sound like it will be quite a while before we need to grapple with these issues, other researchers also are closing in on the formula for memory deletion with great speed. Researchers at the University of Montreal just found, for instance, that injecting patients with a drug called metyrapone, while the patient recalls a negative memory, seems to diminish that memory.6 The lead author of that research, Dr. Marie-France Marin, reports in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, “Metyrapone is a drug that significantly decreases the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that is involved in memory recall. Manipulating cortisol close to the time of forming new memories can decrease the negative emotions that may be associated with them.” Earlier research also has been successful in wiping out memories using drugs known to cause amnesia.7
In fact, there have been numerous studies testing various drugs that all seem effective in controlling or erasing memories. One problem, of course, is that all these drugs have side effects. Metyprapone, for instance, can cause dizziness, headache, vomiting, nausea, and so on, as well as severe allergic reactions, dehydration, confusion, and adrenal insufficiency. Still, as the medical profession marches toward the day when we’ll be able to get rid of the memories we don’t want, the pharmaceutical companies see new opportunities.
The fact is that if you really want to diminish awful memories, there are safe, effective, drug-free ways to do so. Trauma intervention techniques like EFT and TAT work very well at reducing the emotions associated with trauma, as do neurofeedback, biofeedback, and even meditation. The difference is that these approaches allow you to retain the memory, but your reaction to it becomes less charged. Certainly, if you’ve experienced trauma and there’s a way to be free of the pain it brings you, it makes sense to go for it, as long as the way to that freedom from trauma allows you to retain your personal sense of integrity and freedom from drugs.
And then, of course, for those of you not actually looking to forget things, but rather to improve your memory, there’s a whole different way to go — brain tonics.
1 “Brainy Quote.” 9 June 2011.< http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/o/oscarwilde106718.html>
3 “Gone With the Wind Movie Quotes.” Destination Hollywood. 9 June 2011. <http://www.destinationhollywood.com/movies/gonewiththewind/famouslines_content.shtml>
4 “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” IMDB. 9 June 2011. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338013/>
5 “Paycheck.” IMDB. 9 June 2011. < http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338337/plotsummary/>
6 “Drug May Help to Overwrite Traumatic Memory.” 27 May 2011. Science Daily. 9 June 2011. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110526064802.htm>
7 “Selective Amnesia: How a Traumatic Memory Can be Wiped Out.” 4 April 2007. Science Daily. 9 June 2011. < http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070402102218.htm>