I received the following in a newsletter from William Campbell Douglass MD, II. I haven't asked him for permission to reprint, but I expect he would like to get this message out to as many people as possible, as would I:
Tuesday January 04, 2005
Intentional slip of the mind
Memories are powerful things. In many ways, they make us who we are. Without them, we'd have no frame of reference, no context. And we'd have no sense of our own history and place in the world. Without our memories — even the bad ones (especially the bad ones) — we'd be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, or we'd all just be sailing blithely through life simply converting oxygen into carbon dioxide instead of learning, growing, and working toward things our life's experiences have shown us we desire.
In other words, memories are what drive us. Without them, we aren't human.
And until now, we've assumed that our strongest memories are unassailable — that they're locked up tight inside the fortresses of our minds. I say "until now" because according to a recent Washington Post online article, scientists have developed a pill that's the first step toward SELECTIVE ERASURE OF MEMORIES.
That's right, tinkering with our memories is no longer the sole province of science fiction (as in The Manchurian Candidate). If a certain branch of science has its way, we'll soon be able to pick and choose our memories. Early research on laboratory animals shows that injections of certain drugs into the brain can completely eliminate the response to certain targeted stimuli by blocking some key proteins necessary for memory storage.
These experiments haven't been limited to lab rats, either.
Both U.S. and French researchers have tested a pill on human "guinea pigs" that blocks stress hormones in the amygdala — the center of the brain that forms and processes exceptionally strong memories. These studies show that people who take the pill — a variation of an existing drug called propranolol — after a traumatic experience exhibited fewer symptoms of what psychiatrists call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Some of us call this NRTF (Normal Reaction To Fear)...
The bottom line is this: Whether we CAN manipulate memories is no longer the issue. Clearly, we can, and we'll no doubt be able to do so more completely in the near future.
The question is: Should we? And if we decide that we should, how do we keep the technology under control — and away from the drug makers, who'd undoubtedly market it as a "bad day" pill?
Proponents of this research argue that controlled memory erasure (or modification) would help people recover from traumatic experiences like accidents, crimes, or combat. They make a compelling argument. After all, who wouldn't want to take a pill to help them forget something terrible, like a rape, for instance...
But where do we draw the line as to what constitutes a "traumatic" experience? And WHO will make that decision?
Psychiatrists? That's more than a little scary. These are questions that will definitely need to be answered before this technology proliferates.
Is a bad date or lousy day at work cause for popping a memory erasure pill? It's easy to scoff and say "of course not" now — but once this technology becomes more effective, well known, safer, and more affordable, you know darn well people are going to want to take if for less and less severe instances of "trauma."
And what about the ethical dilemmas: In the case of true trauma, like rape, do we kill the painful memory of it right away, or must we let the victim relive their terror until after the trial (assuming the accused is identified)? After all, the accuser has to have a sharp memory of the events to perform as a witness...
Look, not to wax philosophical here, but all of this simply shouldn't happen, in my opinion. We NEED our memories — good and bad — to maintain our very humanity, to learn, grow, teach, and contribute the fruits of our experiences to the human condition.
And if this technology becomes an unchecked mainstream reality (along the lines of, say, antidepressant drugs), it's conceivable that soon, we'll be nothing more than a race of smiling, euphoric zombies who's heads are filled with only pleasant memories and who know nothing of strife or struggle. Characterless, clownish clones of each other, with no frame of reference of experience to differentiate us one
And that's something I'd prefer stay the stuff of Orwell novels, thank you very much.
Always remembering to separate the science from the fiction,
William Campbell Douglass MD, II
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