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The Ethics of Erasing Bad Memories

June 25, 2018
square pencil erasing brain

Have you ever wished you could simply forget a bad memory?

In the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) undergo a procedure to erase memories of each other. But their relationship does not end there. As Joel forgets Clementine, he begins trying to resist the procedure in an effort to keep his memories intact.

Now, scientists have figured out how to actually turn memories on and off, potentially making what was once science fiction into reality. Studies suggest that it could be possible to alter memories to treat people suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and drug addiction.

These advancements in neuroscience leave experts debating whether memory manipulation, with all its potential to treat suffering, is actually a good thing for people.

We Can Erase Memories: But Should We?

Some ethicists say the good does not outweigh the bad.

In Forget Me Not: The Neuroethical Case Against Memory Manipulation, Dr. Peter DePergola (Baystate Health’s Director of Clinical Ethics) explores this practice, concluding that it is a “grave threat to the human condition.”

DePergola has long had a passion for studying the human brain. He says:

“Only three-pounds in weight and comprised of 100 billion (the average number of observable stars per galaxy!) neurons and 100 trillion intersynaptic connections, it contains the means by which we are able to participate in activities that make us uniquely human.”

His doctoral studies in neuroethics (the study of the human brain as it relates to ‘good’ and ‘bad’) led to a fascination with episodic (autobiographical) memory and the concept of manipulating memories.

“My original intent was to write a dissertation arguing in favor of the practice of memory manipulation for severe conditions such as PTSD and addiction. This would have gone with the grain of contemporary thinking on this issue. So I began to write, but I felt like something was scratching me from the inside.”

One night, DePergola woke up in a cold sweat. “Where does hope come from?” He thought. (Not an uncommon crisis in the DePergola house, he jokes.)

“And courage, resilience, perseverance, compassion, solidarity, and other virtues that enable us to become fully human? If we erase bad memories, even the most traumatic, we won’t have need for any of those things. We can’t be better off in a world like that.”

Our Personal Stories Shape Who We Are

For DePergola, the “very good end” of editing or erasing traumatic memories simply doesn’t justify the means: what he sees as a practice that separates people from the personal values that enable them to act on the good.

“To be sure, I don’t think that having bad memories is good. Bad memories are bad. But erasing even bad memories would be catastrophic in the long run. As someone trained to identify what is often the “least bad” between two poor options, the choice between really bad (retaining traumatic memories) and catastrophic (erasing traumatic memories) has become even more straightforward with time. As the book attests, I would reluctantly choose the really bad.”

DePergola explains that the way we answer the question “What am I to do?” has a lot to do with our personal stories and values. Our “narrative identity,” according to DePergola, is what makes up our sense of moral obligation and responsibility. Without our personal narratives, it is difficult for us to “seek, identify, and act on the good.”

DePergola also argues that, for doctors, healing isn’t about erasing trauma, but rather “being willing to meet our patients in their suffering, to share the burden with them, and to find ways of caring for them in light of who they are.”

Clinical Ethics Services at Baystate Health

peter depergola ethics directorDr. DePergola, who directs Baystate Health's Ethics Consultation Service, has been familiar with Baystate – and the difficult decisions patients and doctors often need to make – for most of his life.

Growing up, he spent time with his mother in Baystate Medical Center's intensive care unit where she was a nurse. He remembers observing the stress and emotionally-charged situations happening all around him. He wanted to help, and ended up devoting his life to doing so.

“I leave work most days thinking, “Now I’ve seen it all!” he says. And that feeling lasts about 10-12 hours until a new challenge arises.

DePergola helps patients, families, and health care providers with all sorts of ethical situations. He commonly assists adults dealing with end of life issues, and family members making difficult health care proxy decisions. Any Baystate Health patient, family member, or health care provider may request a consultation at any time, for any reason.

Learn more about clinical ethics consultation services at Baystate Health.