Ethics of Erasing Memory

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 01.13.11
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Neuroscientists have identified a chemical that can erase the connections between brain cells, essentially wiping out memories. Although it can't target specific experiences, like a traumatic event, its existence raises a lot of big ethical issues. In this interview, we asked Art Caplan to help us sort them out. He's the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.


Bioethicist Art Caplan says that memory-altering drugs raise major ethical questions.


Ethics of Erasing Memory

Posted January 13, 2011

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

Okay, what if I told you that I could erase some of your memories? I'll just give you a pill, and poof, they're gone. Done. Erased. Would you do it? Well, here's the thing: That's not an entirely hypothetical question.

Neuroscientists think they've found a chemical that can erase the connections between brain cells—basically resetting memories. It's pretty rough and experimental right now, and has only been tried in rats. Now, it can't wipe out specific memories, like a traumatic experience you're trying to forget or something like that. But the fact that it exists at all raises a lot of big ethical issues. I asked Art Caplan to help us sort those out. He's the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

DAVID LEVIN: So let's just assume for a second that one day we can create a drug that's really focused, that can take out specific kinds of memories. What kinds of medical or clinical uses do you think it would have?

ART CAPLAN: If you couldn't sleep because you were haunted by nightmares of combat or genocide. You can imagine a pretty long list, actually, once you get going of things that torment and torture individuals, that they have experienced and they would very much like to have them come out of their memories. Breaking those memories down, the obsessive thoughts that won't leave our mind, you could see that having a role in psychiatry, psychology, in trying to help people with a certain type of mental illness that is tied up to memory.

DAVID LEVIN: Is there a danger that if you can erase a memory, that it might go too far? That is, where do you draw the line in what kinds of memories should be erased, shouldn't be erased, and who has that control?

ART CAPLAN: Well, a different set of questions comes up when we use drugs. We start to think, okay, if you can focus that drug and get rid of a particular bad memory--the rape that occurred to me, or I was in the car when someone died and I can't get the images out of my mind--people might certainly find that acceptable to use a drug to get rid of those memories, but then they're thinking, well, what else might you get rid of? The unfortunate incident at the birthday party where you didn't get your goody bag to go home? The bad romantic relationship that certainly isn't causing you dysfunction, but it's just a little bit unhappy to sort of think about it?

If we're going to start messing with memory, a lot of unpleasant, a lot of difficult memories form who we are. We learn. It becomes part of our character, our identity. Some might say the struggle against bad experiences is part of what makes us better people.

But I do think the question comes up, how bad does a memory have to be before you're going to say, "well, you're not going to use a drug to get rid of that?" You may not want that memory, but that's crazy to say we're going to get rid of all your bad romantic experiences as you remember them. That's not right. Not only won't you respond to most of country and rock music, but it makes you a better person to have learned from those things. They shouldn't be eliminated. Who's going to control that?

DAVID LEVIN: Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics--there's a quote from him that says, "To deprive one's self of one's memory is to deprive one's self of one's own life and identity." Do you think that's sort of in line with your stance on this?

ART CAPLAN: Well, I think Dr. Kass is worried that any change in your memories of who you are and what you know changes you. I don't believe that. I think we can change some memories without changing fundamentally who we are or how we behave. And even if it does change a little bit of our personal identity, it makes us able to function. We have to understand the plight of those who are prisoners to bad memories, to awful memories, to horrible memories. But, overall, we are our memories. I do agree with that in principle. Our personal identity is deeply tied into our memory. It is why diseases like Alzheimer's are so feared, seen with such harm because your personality evaporates while your body goes on, a situation that few would find acceptable. But I don't believe that every bit of memory has to be retained when those memories make us diseased.

DAVID LEVIN: On a personal level, say you've got something traumatic that happens in your life. You've managed to get that erased. But if others around you still remember it and still remind you of it, does that sort of defeat the purpose?

ART CAPLAN: I don't think so. I think that it may be that, say you were present when a massacre happened. Now, others may have been present, too. And they may tell you, "You were there when this happened," or, "This is what happened." But hearing it secondhand is not the same as having it drilled into your brain in a way that you can't stop thinking about it, that it comes to haunt you when you sleep, that it's sort of forthcoming in your nightmares. I don't believe that the first-party recollection of memory is anything like having somebody tell you that, "you don't remember this anymore, but this is what happened to our group, our people, your family," whatever. You may still find it horrible, but you don't have that searing imagery right in front of your inner eyes.

DAVID LEVIN: Do you see any use for a drug that could erase memory or soften the blow of a traumatic memory being used in a preemptory fashion? I'm thinking using it before an event happens, like going into battle, or something where you know there's going to be a traumatic experience or high potential for that?

ART CAPLAN: I think the ethics of using drugs to try and treat memories that cause disease, dysfunction, impairment, if you will, paralysis of action, are very different from what you might think about preventively or prophylactically. That's a much more dangerous area where you say you can't form a memory.

It would be one thing to say, we take the solider who's so scarred by something they can't get out of their mind, that they turn to drugs, they lose their families, they can't work, they can't sleep, they can't function. And now we're going to try a drug that says, you're not even going to even build a memory of what took place.

Part of the ethics of war, part of the ethics of trying to have constraints, not violate certain principles when you're doing bad things is the ability to form those memories. You know that's a price you're going to have to pay if you do it. And I would worry a great deal about the morality of preventing the formation of memories, if you will, sending soldiers into combat without the ability to form a conscience, without the ability to feel that they're going to have to live with what they do, in their heads, than I would trying to treat those who come out after the fact scarred and damaged.



Produced by
David Levin


(hand holding photograph)
© Jeff Nagy

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