“Neuroscientists have identified a chemical that can erase the connections between brain cells, essentially wiping out memories.”
An excerpt from the podcast transcript:
DAVID LEVIN: Is there a danger that if you can erase a memory, that it might go too far? That is, where do you draw the line in what kinds of memories should be erased, shouldn’t be erased, and who has that control?
ART CAPLAN: Well, a different set of questions comes up when we use drugs. We start to think, okay, if you can focus that drug and get rid of a particular bad memory—the rape that occurred to me, or I was in the car when someone died and I can’t get the images out of my mind—people might certainly find that acceptable to use a drug to get rid of those memories, but then they’re thinking, well, what else might you get rid of? The unfortunate incident at the birthday party where you didn’t get your goody bag to go home? The bad romantic relationship that certainly isn’t causing you dysfunction, but it’s just a little bit unhappy to sort of think about it?
If we’re going to start messing with memory, a lot of unpleasant, a lot of difficult memories form who we are. We learn. It becomes part of our character, our identity. Some might say the struggle against bad experiences is part of what makes us better people.
But I do think the question comes up, how bad does a memory have to be before you’re going to say, “well, you’re not going to use a drug to get rid of that?” You may not want that memory, but that’s crazy to say we’re going to get rid of all your bad romantic experiences as you remember them. That’s not right. Not only won’t you respond to most of country and rock music, but it makes you a better person to have learned from those things. They shouldn’t be eliminated. Who’s going to control that?
DAVID LEVIN: Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics—there’s a quote from him that says, “To deprive one’s self of one’s memory is to deprive one’s self of one’s own life and identity.” Do you think that’s sort of in line with your stance on this?
ART CAPLAN: Well, I think Dr. Kass is worried that any change in your memories of who you are and what you know changes you. I don’t believe that. I think we can change some memories without changing fundamentally who we are or how we behave. And even if it does change a little bit of our personal identity, it makes us able to function. We have to understand the plight of those who are prisoners to bad memories, to awful memories, to horrible memories. But, overall, we are our memories. I do agree with that in principle. Our personal identity is deeply tied into our memory. It is why diseases like Alzheimer’s are so feared, seen with such harm because your personality evaporates while your body goes on, a situation that few would find acceptable. But I don’t believe that every bit of memory has to be retained when those memories make us diseased.”