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The Daily Need

If we erase our memories, do we erase ourselves?

About 270 years ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume, in his seminal work “A Treatise of Human Nature,” offered what was, at that time, a radical notion of human identity: that the “self,” as we conceive of it, is not a single spiritual or psychological entity, like a “soul,” but rather a collection of discrete sensations and impressions — a “bundle,” as he called it. Connections between these individual perceptions give rise to the idea of a continuous “self.” And memory gives that self lasting force.

What, then, is a self without memory? Or, rather, what would happen if we were to remove some memories and add others? By Hume’s account, the bundle would change, and so necessarily would the self. We would be different people, in small but significant ways.

David Hume depicted in a painting by Allan Ramsay

These days, this thought experiment lives mostly in the minds of college freshmen taking their first philosophy seminars. But increasingly, the idea that altering one’s memory could alter one’s self is gaining relevance outside the confines of the Ivory Tower, as new scientific advances offer the promise of re-engineering one’s brain chemistry — and, possibly, re-engineering one’s self.

The most recent example is an announcement by two scientists at Johns Hopkins University that they may have discovered a way to erase traumatic memories from the mind by removing certain proteins from the amygdala, the brain structure that processes memory and emotional reactions.

The procedure is still theoretical, and primitive, but Richard Huganir, a professor and chair of the neuroscience department at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told the Baltimore Sun on Monday that the discovery “raises the possibility of manipulating those mechanisms with drugs to enhance behavioral therapy for such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder.”

As the Sun article points out, the idea of manipulating a person’s brain chemistry to dilute the power of a painful memory is not entirely new. Some medications that target the amygdala are already used in behavioral therapy to lessen the emotional impact of traumatic memories in patients suffering from PTSD.

But the Hopkins discovery goes further, proposing to remove certain “receptor proteins” that facilitate the creation of painful memories. The scientists say they would be able to isolate the memories by having the patients recall those events, identifying the proteins responsible and administering therapy to remove those proteins, thus erasing the memory. Huganir also wrote in a paper for Science Express last week that a similar mechanism might be at work in other centers of learning in the brain, and that such memory-erasure therapy could eventually be used to treat drug addiction or physical pain.

In this context, Hume’s theory of personal identity proves a useful thought experiment: Most of us tend to think there is something essential, or irreducible, about our “selves” that cannot simply be altered or erased by a chemical in the brain. Upon reflection, the idea of erasing a memory seems inherently threatening to our personal identities. We think of our own memories, the events in our lives that have shaped our characters and inform our everyday decisions, and wonder how we would be different without them. And these are only the memories that we recall; the others, which lurk beneath the surface of the conscious mind — what’s known as “implicit memory” — are perhaps just as important.

Then again, it’s possible to see Huganir’s discovery as providing choice, liberating patients to choose what sort of person they want to be. Say, for example, a patient suffering from PTSD decides that she prefers not to be the person she is at that moment, but the person she was before the painful events in question took place. Who’s to say this isn’t a valid choice? And perhaps that choice is, in itself, what makes us who we are. Perhaps Hume’s idea of the self is wrong, as is the idea of an essential, inalterable self. Perhaps the self is simply what we choose, for ourselves, to be — even if that involves erasing the memories we no longer want.

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  • RandomReader

    This development was anticipated by Jack Vance in his novel “To Live Forever”, published in 1956. Although developed by a side character as a method of treating mental illness, the method of selectively erasing memory is abused by the main character, so that a crime he commits cannot be detected.

  • rick

    hopefully this exists at a peaceful time. Surely by then shutting off pain but not sensation. This will aid the CIA greatly B!

  • Charles Kelley

    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.

  • KJ

    OMG! And yet one more proof of stupid genius! I’m a trained biochemist/geneticist and this shit reminds me of the scientists who thought the lobotomy was the cure, and the geneticists who thought that t…aking out an entire gene was the eventual cure for all diseases. They kicked out a mutated gene, unknowing the other functions of that gene, and a person died. What these “geniuses” lacked, was the wisdom to realize that our genes are highly complex and interconnected. They used to think, “One gene one protein,” and in their stupidity failed to realize that perhaps, just maybe that might not be the case, and that maybe that gene might be used in other funtions. Idiots. The brain is the same way; it is a system of relays, and feedback loops of such an intricate degree that we will never EVER fully comprehend it for as long as we live on this planet. (which the true geniuses with wisdom and common sense completely understand). 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 funcions. 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? Ernest Hemmingway allowed himself to undergo the “memory cures” of his day and because of it he was no longer able to write novels anymore. He said to his psychiatrist, “It was a fabulous cure, but we’ve lost the patient.” Oh but these “enlightened,” doctors will argue, as has EVERY scientist of their day, “But we know so much MORE now. Science is so moe advanced now.” Sure, and in 50 – 100 years medicine will look back on the destruction of these fools and cry, “They thought they were so smart back then. Can you believe the crazy procedures those doctors did? Can you believe they actually thought it was permissible medicine?” These doctors evidently havn’t spent too much time in a medical history book. Or maybe an ego adjustment is in order? Gees. And just think of the poor governmental health agencies they’ll try to pass this off on. Well…here’s hoping the FDA will come through on their end and stop this crap before people end up on the brain injury list

  • Beef_leprechaun

    “The procedure is still theoretical, and primitive.” nice reading comprehension, Mr. Biochemist/Genetecist. I’m not sure what Ernest Hemingway or lobotomies or the FDA have to do with anything that this article is talking about. Please stop being so melodramatic you trained and highly skilled professional.

  • ferricoxide

    27 years ago, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Since that diagnosis, I’ve been placed on a number of different medications to control my seizures (changes necessitated by efficacy of a given medicine and the deleterious side effects of each). The interesting thing with epilepsy medications is that, like many neurological medications (e.g., anti-depressants), they have a marked effect on how one acts – one’s normal emotional states, excitability, functional capacities, etc.

    The up-side of these medications has been that, for the most part, I’ve been seizure-free since my diagnosis. Unfortunately, each time I’ve changed medications, it’s felt like I’ve changed who I am. While there are core tendencies, the manner in which medications change how those tendencies manifest makes it feel less like personality is intrinsic than that personality is highly chemical-dependent. Simply put, after this many years on these medications I don’t feel like I know who *I* am.

    Given the subjective changes to my life/outlook from one set of chemicals, it lends a certain credence to the thought that chemicals used to erase memories are going to alter who a person feels they are (or that people will observe them to be). I know that, despite how unpleasant some memories are, each is an experience that helps create who I am and governs what I do. Without a given memory, no matter how fuzzy, I tend to think my behaviors would be different.

  • Lynne Howe

    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? Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we SHOULD do something, or that we even have the right to do it. This whole thing is worrisome to me…

  • laharris55

    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”.

  • Rogi Riverstone

    I HAVE PTSD. Drugs don’t help anything. Only time, courage of self examination and coming to terms with trauma help. It’s hard enough to remember trauma, because of the mind’s faculty for disassociation, anyway. Taking away my option to heal myself, by masking symptoms, would leave me weak and totally dependent on the medical industrial complex and Big PhRMA, who do NOT have my best interests at heart!

  • Martial Broussard

    Power corrupts…..

  • Madeleine A Mccormack

    science freaks me out 8-

  • Stephanie Sapienza

    Why aren’t you sure? And you’re commenting on HIS reading comprehension? It seems pretty clear to me.

    If people AREN’T reacting strongly to the procedures introduced in this article, we are headed somewhere very dark as a society (digging around inside people’s brains and altering their brain chemistry?! are you kidding me?). And your ad hominem response to his comment leaves no room for YOUR particular views on this article either.


    Try looking at and see how Ann Taylor can change negative memories so the negative charges on these memories are no longer there–Ann and I are partnering to produce a CD that will help the vets with their devestating memories without the need for surgery—I wouldn’t recommend that anyone allow themself to be a guinea pig for someone elses agenda–
    Linda Kent

  • Drwpapa

    ERASE Life>?Maybe they should read the Book ,,,,,,,(Running With The Hounds)by a vietnam vet,,(,PTSD)& what it really is !

  • Can

    Very disturbing! I’m certain that if you dig deep into who is funding the research you will find a deep pocketed pharmaceutical company wanting to invent a new product to sell and sedate the masses into a false sense of harmony.

  • Lyrafire

    In my early fifties, some life developments brought me to a crisis, and I was diagnosed with PTSD. I’m a good, gentle person. But suddenly I understood my lifelong inexplicable crying bouts and occasional fierce bouts of temper. Now I see how deeply and profoundly I was affected by a childhood filled with traumas. What happened to me was not a choice–and neither is the PTSD. If I could erase certain events, I would look into it. Would I do it? I don’t know. I’d have to erase huge chunks of my childhood. And if I did, would I also lose the creative abilities that developed as a result of the trauma? Would I lose my sensitive nature?

  • CynVan

    Boy, for a trained bio/chemist you sure write like crap.

  • Hbspinks

    The header asking Do we erase ourself? prresumes that an individual is entirely a collection of data. However, my research shows that while we primarily process and re-transfer data, and thus observe ourself, the indivisible aspect of what is formless (some call it soul or spirit) remains. Our local eco-geography is spatially oriented, while the non-form self is chrono-oriented. That non-form aspect is unemotionally attached to our being, focusing experiences not as objects but as stories. The general premise of the research as a philosophy goes back to Greece, and Vedic traditions, and is echoed in the concept of chaos, genesis, and rebirth. It is also an imperative of a generative progression in creative cognition.

  • survivor

    thank you so much for your input! now i understand that i have ptsd so i can try harder not to get raped again. funny how that’s just like putting my hand on the hot stove. oh wait, no, not in the slightest.

  • laharris55


    I appreciate/understand your ambivalence. We can certainly become kinder, wiser, stronger (etc.) people having lived with/through trauma — this, of course, usually assumes we have good support systems and have addressed any issues such as PTSD (which it sounds like you are doing).

    Just to be clear — I was challenging Lynne’s point as I felt that she overlooked the fact that the majority of trauma is caused by situations in which we are victimized against our will, not because we made bad choices. I work with sexual assault victims/survivors and PTSD (also Rape Trauma Syndrome) is common. I agree that erasing one’s memory, however selective, is a creepy idea but I believe there are people who would be willing to explore the idea in order to achieve peace/relief.

  • Newbreedusa

    I don’t feel that we understand enough about memories themselves. Within a memory, other memories are contained. Within a memory, future aspirations may be contained. There is too much connectivity that is not being examined here. Remove a memory and I’m certain that you’ll remove much more than you bargained for. Even if you ask one to recall and then target chemicals. There’s also the issue of false memories. From the first and second chapters of the Tao -

    The tao that can be told
    is not the eternal Tao
    The name that can be named
    is not the eternal Name.

    The unnamable is the eternally real.
    Naming is the origin
    of all particular things.

    Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
    Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

    Yet mystery and manifestations
    arise from the same source.
    This source is called darkness.

    Darkness within darkness.
    The gateway to all understanding.


    When people see some things as beautiful,
    other things become ugly.
    When people see some things as good,
    other things become bad.

    Being and non-being create each other.
    Difficult and easy support each other.
    Long and short define each other.
    High and low depend on each other.
    Before and after follow each other.

    Therefore the Master
    acts without doing anything
    and teaches without saying anything.
    Things arise and she lets them come;
    things disappear and she lets them go.
    She has but doesn’t possess,
    acts but doesn’t expect.
    When her work is done, she forgets it.
    That is why it lasts forever.

  • Wart

    Wasn’t this pretty much all covered in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?” Not bad, as movies go. The final scene suggests that you will still be you, and I will still be me.

  • Katbear

    I had viral encephalitis when I was around 11 years old. I cannot remember being younger than age 12. I have vague memories of being told things that happened to me when I was younger, but nothing that I can say I actually remember. I could not memorize things for years. Now my memory for recalling things like names and numbers and plain rote is pretty good. But I lost a chunk of my life. No trauma, other than the physical illness.

  • Hattie Marea Balian

    a half century ago Project MK-Ultra was attempting this very thing (look it up), by other means. apparently “they” are making headway… NOT GOOD! this will surely be abused!

  • Anthony

    Scientists… Always wanting to control the Creation… Always imitating, destroying to make “identical” but their ways, … In a few years you will find a “good” excuse for non-natural reproduction right? Everything will be made in your labs & we will choose how our kids would be like… It’s always the same thing: you create the problems, then we have the reaction & then you “solve” the problems you created… Everything was perfect until you mess with it. I wonder how everything was before “science” arrive & mess everything. Your science “cures” the diseases you created. You created all problems & then you are so good & give us the solutions to everything right? Why? Why messing with what was perfect? Who is the real adversary?…. ………………

  • Kytre

    Hey people, do you remember that movie “The Demolition Man” with Stallone & Snipes? Watch that movie again. It tall us so much… And they didn’t have sex so…how kids were made? ;)

  • Anonymous

    I am available.
    Do me.

  • Shawn T Spencer

    The possibility of eliminating such memories is always consequential. Whether we are mature enough to make such a decision for ourselves would directly impact the outcome and the fact that we cannot change the world that we came from or will be going into unless we are capable of reconciling things that CAN be reconciled to a very significant level before we enter into it. A limited number of people basically do not exist consciously because of particular mental, memory related maladies that can be as environmentally and elementally based as anything else. What is helpful and possible in our ability to reconcile ourselves to our world in productive ways? What could be? What is encouraging is that I know that by far majority, the kind of procedures we are talking about are being done in a sphere of medicine and science that already discusses in very human ways the impacts of clear conflicts of interest in a patients ability to operate normally and that clear distinctions can be made when observing these particular patients in real life and by real physicians and moreover their caretakers on the whole who of themselves have learned the limits and abilities of their own professions in an exponentially evolving medical sphere and a physical world that is already hard enough to administer more broadly what could be of great benefit. I am actually not as worried about those that carelessly and casually will waltz themselves into the memory rigging boob job shacks of the future as those who will really need it, and knowing similar situations in very practical terms, the need was already spiritually and clinically apparent and objective. The means and the self-regulation and basic common sense of individuals in creating a system that observes basic moral intelligence is of course more the challenge than the actual technology, but when taking the benefits to those who have needed medical technologies up to this point against those who abuse them and the potential to actually eliminate any known technology with the potential ability for reasonable regulation and benefit, the individual does come over the masses, especially when it doesn’t have to be that way. Many physicians make mistakes in good faith that are profound mistakes, but there is room, albeit limited and very controlled for a basic and very personal cost/benefit analyses that anyone could administer, but which many professionals bless peoples lives with constantly. I don’t need a particular degree in that field, but I know several very persoanally and more importantly, I know their patients and the kind of people who are forgotten by society because they are difficult and I’m not talking about narcissistic, indifferent individuals who are trying to overcome personal grievances with a wonderful life they already have,but those with grinding disabilities that are not productive for them or their families at levels anyone should have to consciously have to agree to even if it is externally arguable that it could be God’s will.

  • Theta Nigma

    Very interesting and disturbing KJ. However, I would like to point out that the people of the future will not fully understand the mistakes of the past. Rather, the scientists of the future will say “those poor fools, they fought they fully understood the brain. Of course WE are more advanced then THEY were and we actually do understand…” and then they will go and make the exact same mistakes. Then as yet more years pass a new generation of scientists will do the same thing, and so on, and so on. Deep on the inside we humans are a rather twisted race. We’ve attempted to erase memories, clone the deceased, build artificial black holes on Earth, engineer ourselves to become better then God made use (ie: Plastic Surgery), destroy ourselves (both unintentionally AND intentionally) this will continue forever, and those that truly understand the ethics of this situation-like you and I and many of the other commentors here-shall forever remain a minority.

  • Theta Nigma

    It’s good to read something amusing after discovering such a disturbing idea.

  • Theta Nigma

    Well laharris55, despite the fact that the trauma’s you described are most certainley not caused by choice we still learn from them and become wary of near-similar situations.

  • Anonymous

    Spoken like someone who truly does not understand the devastation of PTSD and anxiety disorders caused by things outside our control.

  • Anonymous

    The devastation of PTSD and anxiety disorders caused by things outside our control are not choices.
    Appropriate support, even a safe place, the min criteria needed to begin to heal, is too often not available for years or at all.

    People who live below the poverty line and even more so for those with physical disabilities have the most difficulty accessing any truly safe and/or accessible assistance.

    Shelters even the specialty ones rarely meet that criteria if there are special needs.

    MST military sexual trauma is also a growing issue and not by any means a choice.

  • Theta Nigma

    Hey, I am merely trying to argue my position on the fact that the idea of erasing ones memories, even those that devastate us, could destroy us internally in a way none of us can imagine.

  • Theta Nigma

    Melodramatic! He is not being melodramatic. This is bad, bad, BAD! These scientists are stepping into some seriously dangerous territory and the consequences could be severe.

  • Theta Nigma

    I’m sorry to say Stephanie that I personally believe that nobody of great enough influence is going to think like most of the commentors on this page and that these scientists, along with many others, are going to continue to dig deeper into the darker reccesses of human ideas.

  • Anonymous

    MANY suicide after trauma causes THIS IS JUST ONE-
    wonder how many could be saved?
    Military Suicides Up Among Soldiers in Repeat Army Tours – TIME
    Apr 13, 2010 … The rate at which soldiers are taking their own lives is increasing under the burden of repeat deployments in war zones.,8599,1981284,00.html
    More young Texans serving in military commit suicide | Military …
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    YouTube – Military Suicide Set Record
    Jul 16, 2010 … Added to queueUS Military Suicides Out Number Soldiers … Added to queueReports: Suicide Up Among Army Personnelby wlkytv108 views · 2:16 … – Cached
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    Dec 21, 2010 … McCain Objected To My Military Suicide Prevention Bill ….. Have you ever grown up in a poor family in a poor town where the only way out ……/rush-holt-john-mccain-blocking-military-suicide-prevention_n_799798.html
    Increased suicide rate prevalent in US military – The Daily O …
    Dec 6, 2010 … “There was a time when I was pretty f***** up in the head,” Wright said. … military suicide rates have risen exponentially each year. … – Cached
    Military suicide response hinges on erasing stigma against seeking …
    Jan 15, 2010 … The news about suicides in the U.S. military just gets bleaker. … All this bad news comes despite stepped-up efforts to encourage military … › New Orleans Military News › Breaking News – Cached – Similar
    Suicide Rivals The Battlefield In Toll On U.S. Military : NPR
    Jun 17, 2010 … Every Army suicide investigation ends up in a conference room in the Pentagon. Army commanders, including medical officers, meet at the … › News › Health › Mental Health – Add to iGoogle
    Military Suicides Increase as U.S. Soldiers Struggle …
    Nov 23, 2009 … Military Suicides Increase as U.S. Soldiers Struggle Read more by CBS News Investigates on CBS News’ Investigative Round-Up. – Cached – Add to iGoogle
    Suicides up among U.S. soldiers | America’s North Shore Journal
    Deaths in the Military — In Pictures · Causes of Non-Hostile Deaths in Iraq; Suicides up among U.S. soldiers; Army Taking Action to Stem Rising Suicide … › Medicine – Cached

  • Anonymous

    People make too much of trying to stick their philosophy ideas into tangible reality. A house, a car, a tree has no memories, yet they exist just fine in the present moment. So too a human being can, they would just lose the subconscious belief that somehow their present was defined by their memories, or that their emotional reality was predicated on their memories. It’s hardly so bad.