But not everyone is so sure that getting rid of our bad memories would lead to the loss of our true selves. A few years ago, when neuroscientists were testing a chemical on rats that they hoped could erase the connections between brain cells (thereby obstructing the ability to recall memories), Dr. Arthur Caplan, now the head of the division of bioethics at New York University, said that memory-erasing treatments don’t really change who we are.
“I think we can change some memories without changing fundamentally who we are or how we behave,” said Caplan, who is also the editor of Contemporary Debates in Bioethics. “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.”
Although, as Caplan said, tragic memories can potentially make us prisoners to ourselves, it is worthwhile to note that our personalities are made up of a delicate interplay of memories. Many experts believe that to disrupt one memory runs the risk of disrupting everything.
“Our memories and our experiences are fundamental to our personhood, to our lives, to everything that makes us who we are,” said Dr. Judy Illes, professor of neurology and Canada research chair in neuoroethics at the University of British Columbia. “When you pull one brick out of the wall of memories, many other memories go with it. Memories are incredibly interlocked with one another.”
To think that memories can be separated would be a categorical error—our lives are complex, rich with interweaving remembrances that affect our decisions, our present selves, and our future selves in ways that would be impossible to predict. As Illes adds, “There isn’t a moment in time that we aren’t building memories.”
Dr. Hank Greely, director of the center for law and biosciences and professor of genetics at Stanford School of Medicine, agreed, saying, “Memories make up our identity, including our personalities, and in some important ways, we are our memories so if we lost or changed our memories we would be different people.”
“But,” he said, adding a layer of nuance to the potential effects of memory deletion. “Changing or losing memories could make you happier or sadder depending on if you’re losing sad or happy memories.”
Although somewhat skeptical, Greely predicted that in 10 to 20 years there is “a reasonable chance” that memories could not just be disrupted, but pinpointed and deleted entirely.
So if someone undergoes a deeply disturbing experience—a moment that could scar for life—why shouldn’t he be able to do away with that sad memory, if it is a safe process, and could lead to a significant increase in happiness? Initially, it seems like an obvious answer, but messing with memories is far from a simple process and to snip away at one memory is to inevitably infringe on others.