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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?



  • Growth is not sustainable

    Ah the spotless mind thing.
    I think the side effects of removing a memory from your mind might be worse than the memory. We build thought structures around our experience. This procedure would leave a hole that might cause the structure to collapse. No… I don’t think we are ready for this. Maybe in a million years.

  • Laura Walter Pryst

    Personally I would not want to have at traumatic memory erased…I don’t think. None of my memories would be labeled as horrifically traumatic, so I can’t really say what I’d do if given the option. As stated above/earlier, I would be concerned about the hole it would leave in that person’s memory. Other personality associations built when that memory existed might then seem unreasonably foreign to the person and that could cause further/different trauma. And you’re just removing the memory of the traumatic event and not all the protective behaviors that person had developed, so I’m not sure it would be particularly helpful. What about other things that have occurred as a result of the trauma (if the trauma involved the death of someone you loved, and the trauma was removed, what happens to your memory of the person who was lost? Do you just wake up and poof they’re gone (since you don’t remember the traumatic event?) How is that reconciled in your brain and does that itself cause a separate trauma. I do think it is fascinating though, and I look forward to hearing more about it.

  • Ace

    Hmmmm, this is a toughie. I think for me, since I have largely worked out any bad experiences and resolved their effects and implications, I would demur. However, I know some who could benefit from a “benign” application of this technology. It could ease their pain and suffering. Problem is, how do we prevent abuse of this, should it go forward?

  • Elena

    I really wish you guys had included opinions from people with actual trauma issues.

    - someone with PTSD

  • Michael

    I recovered from the PTSD from trauma and it was the greatest learning of my life. Now I help others recover from their so called mental illnesses that is actually PTSD from their traumas. How do you know you have really recovered, until you are grateful for your learning experiences? Then the trauma is gone and the source of your learning.

  • Lisa

    Some people already erase traumatic experiences from their own memory- it is commonly called selective amnesia. I am no expert in this, but the article speaks of science being able to apply a similar type of salve. I personally think that IN CONJUNCTION with good-quality intensive therapy for extremely damaged patients- those likely to spill over into some sort of psychosis from their experiences- this could be offered as one possible treatment. Psychology and brain science is far from perfect, and this thing would be an extreme form of treatment, but I do see a possible use for it in cases of extreme trauma where the victim is completely unable to cope.

  • Jessica

    I have the opposite problem. I am a survivor of sexual trauma perpetrated by both parents and many of their friends. I have less than three minutes of memory of my father before the age of 14. It is evident that I was sexually abused, as I acted out sexually, explaining and demonstrating sexual behaviors to others at the age of seven. I recovered a memory of such activity and I contacted a person who was part of this memory for verification. This person verified that my recovered memory was valid, and he also solidified the notion that I was abused, by telling me things I said and did. I remember none of it. I have PTSD and spent five years in therapy and am doing well. However, I have very little visual memory for many years of abuse. I wish I could see. I wish I knew more. I understand that my mind is protecting me, but I feel as if I am fighting ghosts. These ghosts harbor in my subconscious, and no doubt affect my life. I want them out. Any scientist want to tackle that one? Any way to get into the brain and extract memories?

  • whuuck

    If it mimics selective amnesia, then would it also include the possibility of recovering some of the memories randomly in the future? This could be enormously confusing, even terrifying to undergo.

    I really just don’t buy the whole premise though. That thinking of something painful and identifying the proteins that activates, then removing them could erase a memory? Our brains are always associating one thing with thousands of others. If my painful memory took place in front of a large blue building under bright blue skies… do I also risk losing my memories of blue?

    The flip side is disturbing too. That someone could do the opposite to terrorize a person. Possibly as simply as slipping them a pill. And what if there were a case that went to trial after someone had erased their memories of a certain criminal? Now you lose potential key witnesses.

    And it’s troubling that the Baltimore Sun article mentions its applications with returning veterans. Historically, the government has used people in military as guinea pigs for testing. Women are also historically and currently effected by depression in greater numbers. So there is that ethical consideration too since both groups stand a greater chance of victimization. One should always have informed consent, but that doesn’t happen currently in our medical system and doesn’t even seem possible with such a new, experimental type of treatment.

  • loving daughter

    I have to admit that I have prayed that my Mother would be able to forget the memories she has shared with me since I was a child about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her adopted family after the death of her Mother. I would have done anything to erase those terrible memories for her…..I just never thought my prayers would be answered with Alzheimer’s. One way or another TRAUMATIC ABUSE ruins and influences the lives of everyone involved.

  • Ugly

    I definitely want my bad memories erased. There is no question I would be happier without that hanging over me.

  • GCarrick

    I was in a car accident 10 days ago, where I was knocked out and sustained some head lacerations. I have no memory of it whatsoever, and even seeing the crushed car I was driving (later at the wreckers) there were no memories uncovered. I actually don’t want to remember my struggle to avoid an on-coming 4wd, or relive the impact and injuries, and the work of the ambulance officers to stabilise me at the scene. I’m not looking forward to them possibly resurfacing.

  • Kellyvitiritti

    What if we could erase a bad memory from our collective consciousness? Dachau? No. We learn from our past. And if we are so chosen to sustain a pain such as childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, then maybe that is retained in our conscious as impetus to guard against this happening to another child.

  • Blender

    I’ve been thinking about this and I have to agree with what others have said. At one time I struggled with PTSD. For years in fact! I had panic attacks, was agoraphobic, and generally thought I was losing my mind. At that time, if this type of thing had been offered, I would have jumped at the chance to do it. Now, I am glad this was not an option. I learned a lot about myself, and about coping with serious issues and stress from those horrible years. I also think that, at that time, I was in no state to make a well thought out choice about what should be done to my mind to make it all stop. I will say too that memories and thoughts are all so connected that it doesn’t seem possible to truly erase the effects of an incident, even if you can erase the incident itself.

    I was sitting here thinking over the article and comments I had read, which led me to thinking of train of thought and how we can’t always control it, at which point I thought of the image of a train and then was thinking about how the train tracks aren’t really defined. Seemingly randomly a quote came to mind from the movie Inception. “You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you can’t be sure…” For the most part, memories drive my train.

  • Chad Pilster

    There is relatively new process (1987) that counselors are using called EMDR. The basic of it is that they target the traumatic memory and then replace it. You can read more about it at one of the counselors who practices it is at

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