Is Implanting or Erasing Memories a Scientific Innovation Gone Too Far?

Cognitive disorders rob millions of individuals of cherished life memories, and many people cannot enjoy their lives because of past traumatic events that continue to haunt them daily.

This Sunday, on Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain, director Brett Ratner and narrator Adrien Brody explore the powerful new technologies that scientists are using to reveal the many mysterious facets of the human brain.

Each week we’re inviting thought leaders and experts from various fields explored in the series to discuss and dissect some of the controversial questions raised in each episode. This week, we looked to brain and medical experts to share their perspective on the following question:

What if scientists were able to implant or erase memories? For some, like those suffering from PTSD, this could be life changing, or do you think this would be a scientific innovation gone too far? 

Here’s what they had to say…

BrainBlogger’s Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor Carla Clark, PhD, looks at both sides of the argument: “Let’s take the concept of erasing memories that are associated with a traumatic event. There is one glaring potential problem with this. Erasing memories may result in further fragmentation of the self, altering one’s identity and behavior, as is tragically found for neurological disorders and brain injury that involve memory loss.” She continues, “One could argue that tampering with the emotions associated with a memory could leave us vulnerable to falling victim to similar circumstances, without emotional alarm bells ringing as loudly to alert us of danger signs. Ultimately, the marked similarity between using technology to alter the emotions mapped to traumatic memories to aid recovery, and the mechanisms involved in spontaneous healthy recovery from traumatic events takes the edge off of this line of thinking.” She concludes, “In the end it us up to us, the people of now, to begin to compare the potential benefits of this technology for the individual to the potentially negative effects on society as a whole. What happens when we are granted the god-like power to potentially alter our memories when they are so integral to our identity, our consciousness, and the essence of what it means to be human?”

Kara Wahlin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, shares a powerful perspective on the brain and how it organizes and holds on to trauma, in her blog NICU Healing. She reflects, “On this topic I was quick to realize that there’s no way I would prefer to forget my traumatic memories; not only do they contain critically important details of my sweet boys’ lives (and William’s passing), but at the same time, the experiences gave me a completely different sense of the world around me. It wasn’t necessarily a positive sense, but it felt powerful and important. It most definitely changed the way I perceived things—the way I think.” Wahlin weighs the question at hand heavily and ponders: “What if, instead of holding on to the end goal of “forgetting” trauma, we chose to carry it with us, perhaps in the hope that in communicating what we have been through, we could help others to understand it?”

Award-winning science communicator Jordan Gaines Lewis relates modern-day neuroscience to a science fiction movie. In her blog Gaines, On Brains, she notes it is “not unlike Lord Voldemort luring Harry Potter to the Ministry of Magic by creating false images in Harry’s mind, or the entire premise of the movie Inception — but science is actually getting close.” She discusses recent developments in optogenetics in mice, wherein scientists are delving into the world of memory manipulation. However, Gaines recognizes that doing it in humans is far more complicated. “In the lab, optogenetics is still a rather invasive technique. Also, fear is very fast-acting, evolutionarily-ingrained instinct — how can we target much more elaborate, complex memories, such as a particularly horrifying experience for a combat veteran? And even if we are able to develop the technology to precisely target and manipulate these memories, should we, from an ethical perspective? Are we taking science too far?” she wonders.

Eric Robertson, founder of PT Think Tank, a blog on critical observations of health, science and the physical therapy profession, considers the question from a physical therapy perspective. He notes, “While the concept of having memories erased seems on the surface frightening… (I wouldn’t want to forget that cool downhill bike ride down Mount Snow even though it hurt!)… it does seem that breaking links between pain experiences and memories is one of the keys to managing chronic musculoskeletal pain conditions.” Robertson then ponders, “Will future physical therapists have a cadre of tools that not only allows for mechanical inputs to alter central nervous system activity (spinal manipulation), but also precise strategies to target pain memories and more directly impact cognitive reasoning about pain? I sure hope so!”

Alvaro Fernandez, the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of SharpBrains raises an interesting point regarding the downside of erasing painful memories such as one of a bad car accident. He considers, “Per­haps you would for­get much about the peo­ple you were dri­ving with, even break­ing the love you felt for your spouse, who was in the car too. Sec­ond, you would be less likely to learn from that expe­ri­ence, as bad as it was, and less likely to drive more care­fully next time. As an alternative he suggests, “Instead of eras­ing the mem­ory, you might want to con­sider alter­na­tives. What if going through a few weeks of vir­tual reality-assisted cog­ni­tive ther­apy helps you man­age the anx­i­ety and the trauma, and equips you with a life­long cop­ing skill?” Fernandez recognizes the appeal to both sides of the debate, ultimately noting, “We live in excit­ing, trans­for­ma­tional times, but we need to be proac­tive about antic­i­pat­ing and mit­i­gat­ing poten­tial issues, align­ing sci­en­tific inno­va­tion to the inter­ests of indi­vid­u­als liv­ing in the here and now.”

A big thanks to all of our experts for weighing in on this exciting topic, and don’t forget to tune in to BREAKTHROUGH: Decoding the Brain this Sunday, Nov. 15, at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel.

Comments

  1. Kara Wahlin
    California
    November 13, 2015, 12:22 am

    I really like how all of the contributors here touched on the notion that the brain isn’t something that works in only one arena, and highlighted that everything is connected. Forgetting trauma might mean forgetting something extremely important. Either for protective purposes (the importance of fearing the same event happening again) or for evolutionary/emotional purposes (diminishing the people with whom you went through the trauma and how important they were). Thanks for letting me be a part of this Nat Geo. Great talk.

  2. […] Geographic Channel will shortly air “Breakthrough: Decoding the Brain“. As part of a virtual roundtable, Brain Blogger was selected to screen the episode and address the thought provoking question raised […]