Even If We Could Erase Bad Memories, Should We?

New science suggests it might be possible to free ourselves of mental burdens—but would doing so destroy who we are?


In 1992, author George Saunders wrote a short story, first published in The New Yorker, called "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz." In it, he tells the tale of a clerk in a futuristic holograph-experience store who, in scanning the brain of a would-be armed robber he'd knocked out, accidentally downloads—permanently—all the youthful memories the man's mind contained. The clerk is horrified at his error ... until the robber regains consciousness. Then, freed of the painful memories of life experiences that had damaged him, the robber smiles and walks happily out of the store. The clerk ends up deciding to "offload" his own past memories as well, rewriting his past and leaving him free to start life all over again, without the scars.

The story is science fiction-fantasy, of course. Or it was when Saunders wrote it. But in a study published in the April 27 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, a team of UCLA researchers reported that they'd actually discovered a way to erase long-term memories—at least when experimenting on small marine snails and on the snails' neurons in petri dishes.

Not that small snails and neurons have all that much going on in the memory department, mind you. But that was the point, the researchers said. The study's goal was to isolate a protein kinase and process that snails and mammals share (which the researchers suspected played a key role in memory retention) and to test the effect of inhibiting that activity in an animal with a very simple neurological system.

When researchers prodded the snails' abdomens, the snails responded with a reflexive contraction. But normally, that contraction lasted only a few seconds. After "training" the snails with electric shocks associated with the prodding, however, the contractions lasted up to 50 seconds. A week later, prodding the snails still resulted in contractions lasting 30 seconds or longer, indicating to researchers that the snails "remembered" the electric shocks, and that the memory had been encoded into "long-term" memory in their systems.

If the researchers inhibited the activity of a specific protein kinase called PKM, however, the snails then responded to being prodded with only the standard two- or three-second contraction. Their memory of the electric shock training was effectively erased.

Clearly, there's a big gap between inhibiting long-term memory in the synapse between two neurons in a simple marine snail and inhibiting long-term memories in the highly complex structure of a human mind. Even if the PKM protein kinase were to prove pivotal in humans as well, and could be reliably inhibited, researchers would still have to figure out how to locate and target specific memories in the brain. Otherwise, all of a person's memories could be erased—not just the traumatic ones.

Nevertheless, the experiment is something of a breakthrough and could be the first step in developing therapies to "damp down" or erase traumatic memories in people suffering from debilitating cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Given that the U.S. Army suicide rate has reached a 27-year high, and that nearly 20 percent of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan test positive for PTSD (the Department of Veterans Affairs reported last year that over 170,000 returning veterans had been diagnosed with PTSD), the idea of being able to wipe out the traumatic memories causing all that pain is appealing.

Indeed, few adults reach the age of 40 or 50 without accumulating some memories that still make the heart ache in the middle of the night, even if the remembered event happened a very long time ago. But if we had the ability to erase those painful or traumatic memories, would we really want to do that?

Part of my hesitancy stems from the seeming inevitability of the Law of Unintended Consequences. As hard as professionals might try to anticipate any collateral effects of erasing a traumatic memory, odds are good that there'd be some new and unexpected problems created by the technique. But I also wonder if it's really possible to eliminate significant memories, even ones that are traumatic, and erase only the pain and damage—and not also an important piece of who that person is or has become.

When I was 20 years old, I was in a near-fatal car crash while living 10,000 miles away from my family, on the North Island of New Zealand. I went head-first through the front windshield of a car at high speed and, as I later came to describe it, spent the next nine hours fighting for my life, and the next 18 months fighting for my sanity. Struggling though the difficult, post-traumatic stress caused by a near-fatal trauma so far away from home cost me most of my friends, a significant relationship that I thought would last a lifetime, and a big chunk of my productive abilities for a year and a half. I had flashbacks, nightmares, and the psychologist treating me put herself on 24-hour-a-day call at one point, afraid that I might hurt myself. Having knowingly come so close to death, I also found myself both unable to plan for the future and afraid in ways I'd never been before. What's more, some of the life choices I made in the few years after the accident were less than ideal, and I probably would have made different choices had I not been struggling with the damage that experience caused.

And yet, for all the darkness of that time, that accident was also a transformative experience that still informs the way I walk through the world. Painfully aware that life could be wrenched away from anyone in an instant, I found myself unwilling to choose a business career that offered only the delayed reward of money or "security" down the line. If security didn't exist and life was uncertain, then I needed to find a life's work that was fulfilling in the process and made me as happy as I could be every day, so that no matter when it ended, I could say I'd spent whatever time I had well. Friends and family also became far more important than external career success. And I wouldn't trade that wisdom, or those choices, for anything in the world.

Just as important as my clarity in my own priorities, however, was the fact that I gained a first-hand, visceral understanding of what another human might be going through after combat, accident, attack, or loss. I have walked through life since that time with a better, deeper understanding of and compassion for others' pain, and a greater ability to reach people in pain, as a result of my own. And I'm not sure I'd be the same person in the world without that, or able to make the same contributions.

I have asked myself many, many times, over the years, whether or not—if I had the choice—I would wish not to have had that accident. The easy answer is yes. I wouldn't wish a nightmare like that on anybody. But it's hard for me to separate out the pain from the strength, the loss from the gifts. And in the end, I always come to the same conclusion: I would not be who I am today if it weren't for that accident. So to take it away would be to take away not only its shadows but an important part of myself.

In the case of a suicidal soldier, or someone too damaged to go on with a healthy or happy life, perhaps the cost/benefit equation would be different. On the other hand, Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, a professor and director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Center at the Emory University School of Medicine, says that even in the case of severely traumatized veterans, erasing a traumatic memory would be unwise.

"Remember the move Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?" Professor Rothbaum asked. (In the movie, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play ex-lovers who choose to erase their memories of one another.) "They erased their memories of each other, and then they made all the same mistakes all over again. The point is, we are meant to learn from dangerous and painful situations and experiences. So we definitely don't want to erase someone's memory of a traumatic event. We just want to make it less of a fearful memory. It will always be a bad memory, a traumatic memory. What we're working to do is to let people learn from it without it being something that interferes with their lives."

Dr. Rothbaum and her colleagues are also conducting research that involves inhibiting a neurological response, in the hopes of helping PTSD patients. But Rothbaum's research focuses on the use of the antibiotic D-cycloserine, which has been shown to reduce fear levels, with PTSD patients. And the end point isn't just to make a memory less fearful. The end point is to reduce a patient's fear of looking at the memory enough so that the patient is more able and willing to confront it, sort through it, and reframe it in a way that allows them to go on with their lives.

To remember or forget? It might be a tough choice for anyone in pain to make. But Dr. Rothbaum may be right. Even if ignorance is bliss, 'twould be folly not to become wise.

Image: philip.bitnar/flickr