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Comments roundup: Would you want traumatic memories erased?

“What is a self without memory?” Need to Know’s Sal Gentile wondered in a Daily Need post last week following the announcement that two scientists may have found a way to lessen the power of painful memories, and possibly even erase them.  Our readers responded with a flurry of opinions on the implications of being able to erase traumatic memories from the brain, with most balking at the idea.

KJ doubted scientists’ abilities to fully understand the impact of such a procedure on other parts of the brain:

To remove a part of the brain that a doctor considers malfunctioning is folly. These doctors are foolish because they aren’t willing to admit the limitations of their knowledge. They have no idea the totality of how that section of the brain functions. If they think they do, then they have flown past naive and stupid, to landing at arrogant and outright dangerous. Can they truly state (and if they do, they will solidify their stupidity) that they know fully all the chemical relays, all the ionic, and micro-electrical functions of EVERY neuron and every cell of the brain?

Lynne Howe wondered whether erasing painful experiences from memory would prevent some from learning from past mistakes:

This article gives one pause, especially when combined with a reading of Philip Yancey’s book titled “Where Is God When It Hurts?” Yancey proposes that pain can be a good thing in some cases, such as the pain felt when touching a hot burner on a stove wires us to be careful to not do that again; or walking on shredded glass with bare feet and bleeding profusely would allow us to be wary of broken glass. I’m thinking that this premise also works for a post-traumatic-stress situation, too — that was painful, so let’s NOT do that again. What will happen if those pains, and the memories of such, are removed? Will we then be condemned to lives of needless repetition and suffering?

But another reader, laharris55, disputed the idea that traumatic experiences are results of choices:

This assumes that people have made a choice and were, therefore, traumatized. However, many traumatic experiences, such as violent crime (including sexual assault), childhood physical and sexual abuse, etc., are certainly not part of a choice. PTSD (and Rape Trauma Syndrome) can be very debilitating and forever change the way a person experiences the world, so I am open to hearing about any new developments that can address these issues. Being able to vividly recall how damaged and evil your perpetrator was is not a “teachable moment.”

Charles Kelley worried about potential abuses of such technology:

Given the history of human beings, I have grave doubts about their altering the memories of others. I think it’s rife with too many ethical and moral dilemmas, and I hope bioethicists give clear guidance to the medical and psychotherapeutic communities. Without it, there will be widespread abuse especially by persons who fancy themselves the saviors of humanity. I don’t want to see people suffer from their traumatic memories by any means. But it seems to me a way less susceptible to abuse is to teach the person (adversely) affected by traumatic memories a way to live with those types of memory.

And on Facebook, a fan by the name of Heidi argued that because everybody copes with traumatic experiences differently, the procedure might serve some well:

Some people seem to deal with trauma better than others. Some people make it through the pain and find a way to make themselves a better person. Sometimes the horror they experience enables them to help others, but some people become completely debilitated. Some people live in a constant nightmare and have been through things that make rape or the sudden death of a loved one seem mild. Some people have been through less than that and wind up mentally and emotionally scarred. We’re all different and can never really know how something traumatic will affect us until it’s happening. I don’t think this should be used often, but I think there are people who may have an opportunity to live much happier lives because of it.

Would you support the availability of this kind of technology for some who might finally find internal peace from erasing traumatic memories? Or would you side with the commenters who doubt that such a procedure could be handled without consequence?

Where do you find “good journalism”?

On last week’s show, Jon Meacham delivered an editorial on the “age of bumper-car politics,” where “voters and office seekers and provocateurs live for the next collision.” The segment drew a number of comments about who and what were contributors to this culture of conflict — politicians, the American public and the mainstream news media. The mainstream media has been a frequent target of criticism in recent weeks, particularly surrounding the coverage of the midterm elections and Jon Stewart’s closing remarks at the Rally to Restore Sanity. A few comments from our readers on Facebook:

It is easy to point out the flaws in today’s news coverage, but allow us to flip the question around: What do you consider “good journalism”? What news personalities, publications, websites, or blogs do you turn to for the most reliable and in-depth news coverage, and how can that quality of reporting inspire others to do better?

Follow Need to Know on Twitter and Facebook.

Election 2010: Where do you stand?

Photo: Theresa Thompson

November 2 is officially one week away, and the air is buzzing with election fever. Undoubtedly, you’ve already been inundated with viral campaign ads, polls, maps, offbeat new parties, debates and political candidate hijinks. Friday’s election episode of Need to Know plans to take a step back and analyze some of the larger issues in voting and today’s political landscape outside of the horse races. But in the midst of the election hullabaloo, we want to know: Where do you stand? What races are you following, and what issues are you most concerned about in the midterm elections?

Follow Need to Know on Facebook and Twitter, and e-mail us with story ideas at

‘Why does our society need to have someone to discriminate against?’

The tragedy of the rising number of suicides of young gay people has brought national attention to the issue of both bullying and homophobia in the United States. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better Project,” a series of user-generated videos reassuring gay youths that life becomes exponentially better after the trauma of high school, has exploded from a simple YouTube project to a full-fledged national campaign. But beyond the confines of teenage bullying, some have vocally addressed a need for the national conversation to go a step further. Richard Kim, senior editor of The Nation, argued:

When faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it’s easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called ‘anti-gay bullying’ and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard.

It’s tougher, more uncertain work creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive.

Similarly, on last week’s episode of Need to Know, Jon Meacham delivered a video essay on the “culture of anti-gay hate” in America invoking the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and anti-gay remarks by politicians. He compared today’s intolerance of gays to that of blatant racial discrimination of the Jim Crow era. One reader commented on this comparison:

The article assumes that we are past the ‘Jim Crow’ era. That is false … ‘Jim Crow’ has gone underground. It isn’t so overt as it was in the past. Today, instead of clearly calling it out by race, we have put the burden on the legal system … While the laws look like they are for everyone, we have selective enforcement allowing segregation to thrive.

I think that the real question is: ‘Why does our society need to have someone to discriminate against?’ We have done it to blacks. We have done it to Mexican Americans and Native Americans. We did it to the Japanese Americans in WWII. We have done it to homosexuals. Today, many towns are enacting laws keeping some people from living within their borders. How can we move past discrimination at all?

What do you think? How does a society manage to move past a seemingly endless cycle of discrimination? Weigh in at the comments below.

Joblessness in America: Share your stories

Photo: Flickr/Bart Heird

As the country’s unemployment rate lingers just below 10 percent, many Americans continue to struggle with joblessness, tight finances, and underemployment. Need to Know’s Friday broadcast highlights a few of these stories of people — some just starting out in the work force, and some who have been a part of it for decades — trying to eke out a living in a stagnant job market with limited options. But we know that the portrait of unemployed America is even more varied and complex still. So we invite readers to share their stories here – how have you been affected by joblessness or underemployment? Have you had to radically change career plans or living conditions in order to get by? Share your experiences in the comments below.

What do you need to know about mammograms?

Dr. Emily Senay

After years of being told that early detection was the key to treating breast cancer, many were understandably stunned last year when a panel of scientists concluded that women over 40 don’t need mammograms nearly as often as previously thought. And a new study out of Sweden raises even more questions about how often mammograms are needed.

This week’s show should help to answer some of the questions surrounding this controversy, but many of our readers may want to know more. Our medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay will be taking your questions on mammograms. Submit your questions below, and she will respond to many of them on Wednesday, October 6.

Update: A note from Laura LeBlanc, Need to Know’s health producer

Clearly our readers have lots of questions about mammograms. Some of you want to know if there’s a better way to screen for breast cancer, and many of you would love to have a less painful alternative (me too!). Others wonder if cancers caught early through routine mammograms are easier and more cost effective to treat. Dr. Senay addresses some of these questions in Five Things You Need to Know About Mammograms on tonight’s broadcast.

Some of you also have personal questions about your own unique medical situation. No one can diagnose you or make specific recommendations for mammogram screening for you online. Specific concerns like these are best discussed with your physician who knows your unique medical history. But Dr. Senay will address some of the broader questions you have regarding mammograms next week.

Many of you are worried that the radiation from a mammogram might be dangerous. I can tell you that according to the American Cancer Society, today’s mammography machines use a low dose of radiation – about the same amount of background radiation you are exposed to about every three months just from the world around you. The American Cancer Society says the radiation you would get from routine mammograms, even if you were to have them yearly from age 40 to age 90, would not significantly increase your risk of breast cancer. You can get more information about mammograms and other breast imaging procedures on their website.

Update (Oct. 6): Dr. Senay returned with answers to some of your questions — read them here.

International development and global overpopulation

Last week, we sat down with renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs to discuss the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, the set of goals aimed at reducing the poverty and hunger in the world’s poorest countries by half by the year 2015. Since the goals were established 10 years ago, however, the U.S. has not heard much about them. Sachs discussed the issue:

“It’s not an accident that the U.S. ranks lowest of all major donor countries in the world — that is the share of our income that goes to development aid. Americans will ask whether, because were so generous privately, that makes up the difference. But it doesn’t. We still rank far below other countries … We have no shortage of resources on this planet. If you want to find them, then rein in the military budgets, the tax-free accounts of billionaires or the bonuses of Wall Street bankers. The balance isn’t even remotely correct.”

Naturally, readers have had plenty to say about the U.S.’s motivations toward international development and the responsibility to aid other nations while still grappling with domestic poverty. Stephen Druesedow commented on governments acting in their own self-interest:

“The reason I think Obama, Bush and Clinton don’t mention the [Millennium Development Goals] is because America, as the military leader in the world, does not want to lend very much legitimacy to the UN, lest it should lose any of its own. This is how governments work – they are generally selfish.”

A Need to Know Facebook fan, Darrell, agreed with Sachs in saying that all the necessary resources are available, but they are not properly distributed:

“It’s not all about money … there’s enough food to go around. Just look how much food is wasted in North America alone. We super-size everything, then throw half of it out. Tons of grain goes to rot or to animal feed every year in the U.S. and Canada because no one wants to buy it (or can’t afford it). The world can provide enough to sustain us all if we smarten up about how we use the food we produce and how we supply it to other countries. It’s all there; it just has to be produced, used and distributed sensibly and fairly.”

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Pitches of the week: Businesses and public education, polling transparency, epigenomes and the food supply

Education has proven to be a popular issue among Need to Know fans — the Pitch Room conversation over the economics of higher education sparked a lengthy, intriguing conversation, and the NTK staff has been keeping up with some of the uncertain new frontiers in the country’s educational system (Alison Stewart weighed in on Tuesday’s primary results and their potential effect on school reform, and we offered a rundown of free online courses currently being offered in the new trend toward providing free, publicly accessible college classes on the Internet). This week’s story ideas from our audience tackle some more questions about schooling in the U.S, along with other hefty topics that question the structures and operations of national institutions. Let us know what issues you’re burning to hear more about, and you can always send us your story ideas at

Businesses and public education

“I’d like to see stories on how business/profit affects public education … tracking the money. Look at testing companies and textbook publishers and the relationship to state required testing and other education laws and policies. (Florida might be an interesting place to start.)”

Transparency in polling

“I would like a story about history of corruption in polling. I’d like a historian and a media analyst interview with Chomsky. If you want, you could feature role of internet in providing transparency in polling:,, etc.”

Dismantling of higher education

“Please do a story on the systematic, global dismantling of higher education. This is especially evident in California, where less and less of the state’s general fund is allotted to the three higher education systems (community colleges, state universities, and University of California campuses), despite the “Master Plan for Higher Education”, which guarantees a tuition-free college education for ANYONE who qualifies. This is also happening in Europe (where they are getting rid of tenure), along with the rise of for-profit online degrees.”

Jobs moved overseas

“Why not do a story listing the names of American companies that have moved jobs overseas and also disclose their political contributions. Include the number of jobs involved.”

Epigenomes and the food supply

“Stress, poor environment, and toxic chemicals in the environment can cause epigenome changes in how our genes are expressed. I’m wondering how animals that are being raised in large farms with very restrictive and very stressful environments and with modified food that is not natural to the species in nature are reacting to this situation.  We know that these animals frequently have to be given antibiotics to keep them from getting infections and getting sick. These antibiotics come through the process into our food.  What about the epigenome chemicals?  How will they affect us?  Is our meat coming from large production farms feeding us and our children with epigenomes chemical compounds that are influencing our genes? I’d like to learn more.”

Changing human behavior and the high cost of going green

Last week, a PBS Facebook fan by the name of Kat popped a question in our Pitch Room:

“I’d like to investigate why people don’t/won’t change their behavior concerning energy conservation, reducing consumption, recycling, detoxing their homes, etc. Is it some form of denial? Blame the Other? Why do we continue to ruin our environment?”

It’s safe to say that Need to Know fans are largely pro-environment, and we’ve had some quite invigorating discussions on past stories in our environment beat (Robert Fri’s analysis of windmill opposition, our video segment on Wyoming’s battle between the sage-grouse and the wind power industry, Sal Gentile’s interview with climate scientist Michael Mann, and our ever-popular look at the “tiny house” movement, to name a few examples). It’s hard to deny that big corporate interests and lobbyists play a large role in slowing down the country’s shift towards more sustainable living. But lambasting Big Oil and sneering at Hummers can only get us so far. How do we reform the most basic unit of energy consumption: human behavior?

Throughout our coverage of the energy industry and the environment, we’ve received plenty of comments detailing obstacles to adopting a cleaner, greener lifestyle. The price of organic food, for one, is a common complaint, as reader jtlately described:

“Even though I have lots of choices with grocery stores and a local farmers’ market, finding some things – such as strawberries – that are organic is challenging, if not outright impossible! So, am I to not eat them?”

Self-described “poor grad student” Patrick R. agreed:

“As a poor grad student, I can scarcely afford the pesticide-laden imported grapes, much less organic sources for all my produce. I can’t wait until I one day have a real job that allows me to purchase a little plot of land where I can grow much of what I eat, but it just isn’t happening right now.”

Reader Kate Gallagher, however, had a suggestion for driving prices down:

“The sooner people switch to organic foods in a big way the sooner the prices will drop. As we all know the more of anything grown/made/produced/manufactured the cheaper the cost to do so. If we demand organic foods on a large scale the prices will come down.”

One of our most popular segments to date on the “tiny house” movement also elicited a wistful comment from a reader named Tracey who was unable to build her own:

“[Tiny houses] would be a fabulous idea if most jurisdictions didn’t have Zoning Ordinances with minimum square footage requirements.”

Kathy Handyside echoed the opinion:

“People are beginning to rise up and fight these [zoning ordinances]. Why should we be forced into more house than we need, just because of corporate greed on the part of the housing industry (who were the ones who changed the codes)? There are so many people who are homeless who probably would not be homeless if the zoning codes allowed small houses.”

Readers also spoke up about some of the pitfalls involved with adopting wind power — heralded as the new frontier of renewable, sustainable energy production. Jeannie Counce explained how the transmission lines from wind turbines affect property values nearby:

“I live in Montana and [transmission lines are] a really big rub. No one wants to lose value on their property by having massive transmission lines (there still is very little energy infrastructure) run across their land. Keep in mind that a 1,000 acre ranch can be significantly devalued, especially if the owner was planning to one day develop it into a residential neighborhood. The fact that we’ve been consistently ripped off by energy companies selling “our” resources to out-of-state buyers for less than they charge us as consumers is also an issue–it’s not as much about the destination as it is about being gouged.”

In an effort to avoid accusations and finger-pointing at those who refuse to change, allow us to rephrase Kat’s question for you: What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced in trying to adopt a more environmentally friendly lifestyle? If you don’t own a solar panel, compost garbage, bike or take public transportation to work, have a downsized home, buy organic, or use energy-efficient light bulbs – why not? And if you have gone out of your way to go green, what has made it easier for you?