Eleanor Chrispin: Memory

Ellie Chrispin Who hasn’t, in a moment of regret, wished they could turn back the clock? While time travel remains out of our grasp, the ability to erase certain memories – not so much changing the past, as fundamentally altering our recalled experience of it – could be the next best thing.

By understanding the neural processes and biochemistry involved in memory formation and recall, researchers are apparently moving closer to being able to do just that. A team at Oxford University’s Institute of Psychiatry have used the computer game Tetris to disrupt the brain processes involved in laying down painful memory. Diverting the brain’s attention, within the six hour window in which memory forms, dramatically reduces the impact of recalled trauma. Further research carried out at the State University of New York has identified a drug capable of interrupting the biochemical process by which memories ‘stick’ in the brain, the first step in chemically controlling unwanted or intrusive memories.

This is of course the stuff of film plot lines (as anyone familiar with Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, in which a couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories, will recognise), but the potential application of the real-life scientific developments is far from frivolous. They could, researchers claim, ultimately lead to cures for phobias and treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder; a ‘cognitive vaccine’, as the Oxford team has termed it. By erasing or dulling the vividness of painful memories, you allow for the possibility of alleviating their serious psychiatric consequences.

This is undoubtedly an exciting prospect, but one which gives rise to some fundamental questions, namely what our accumulated experience means for us as individuals, for our identity and our relationship with the world around us. What happens when you take some of that experience away?

Would you, if you had the option, erase bad memories?

In erasing such memories, what would you actually be taking away? Traumatic experience alone, or something more?

How is induced amnesia different to the natural, subconscious erasure of traumatic memories that are too painful to face?

What about the other factors that influence our experiences of the past, such as our genetic make-up and our environment? What part do they play in our remembered past?

Ellie Chrispin is ethics adviser, British Medical Association Medical Ethics Department. The views expressed are her own.