This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2004 Second Web Paper
Nightmares, violent flashbacks, and an inability to simply forget painful memories for even a moment, these are some of the consequences of experiencing a trauma. The haunting nature of the memories are often so horrible that erasing the memory all together is desirable. While in the past this idea of erasing memories only existed in movies, scientists are getting closer to methods to erase memories. The process is referred to as "therapeutic forgetting" (5). As research advances so do the debates on the ethics of the process. Therapeutic forgetting has opened a discussion among policy makers, scientists, and those who suffer from horrible memories. If successful, drugs that alter memories could help suffers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However if abused the same medication could change the way we process emotional pain and hinder our ability to work through bad memories.
Post traumatic stress disorder, a disorder which often occurs in people who live through a traumatic experience, can be debilitating at its worse. Individuals with the disorder often times relive their traumatic experience through dreams and flashbacks of their violent memories (6). The psychiatric disorder is often associated with Veterans of War but its effects are felt by many survivors of traumatic experiences. In the most severe cases PTSD can be incapacitating because of the frequent flashbacks. Currently those who suffer from the disorder are treated with various types of therapies, sleeping pills, and antidepressants. While these treatments can be helpful in easing the pain associated with awful memories none of them solve the problem fully.
Recent research has shown that the ability erase or at least decrease the intensity of painful memories may soon be possible. One study led by Roger Pitman, of Harvard Medical School, tests the ability of the drug propranolol to impact the hormones involved with painful memories (5). This theory is based on the concept that painful memories become predominate in the mind. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are produced during a stirring experience. These homomones are believed to increase the ability of the brain to grab onto and hold a memory. As a traumatic experience is particularly stirring, memories from these experiences can be particularly haunting. The drug propranolol, once used to treat heart problems, goes to the brain and interferes with adrenaline and norepinephrine production (5). Pitman believes that when used immediately after a trauma the drug could help people deal with negative experiences. If Pitman is right, PTSD could be avoided by many people who live through trauma. Currently the study is incomplete but it still raises interesting questions for scientists, policy makers, and PTSD sufferers.
At first the benefits of therapeutic forgetting for victims of PTSD seem overwhelming. With the use of a drug that decreases the ability to remember traumatic experiences we could prevent the disorder all together. However many bioethicists believe that using medication to forget is unethical (5). Life is about overcoming obstacles and by overcoming or learning to deal with the disorder individuals are learning how to adjust to a problem. How can individuals have empathy and understanding of emotional pain if their painful memories are dulled? Also the effects of propranolol for example are not limited to negative memories. A stirring memory that is positive could also be faded(5).
As research and the possibility of creating memory erasing treatments advance policy makers have been forced to respond. As recently as October of 2003 the Presidents Council on Bioethics commented on drugs meant to help people forget trauma saying, "they could also be used to ease the soul and enhance the mood of nearly anyone". The Council then argues that the use drugs would then open a new market to help people avoid unpleasant thoughts which allow "our pursuit of happiness and our sense of self-satisfaction [to] become increasingly open to
direct biotechnical intervention"(1). For these reasons the Council opposes the pursuit of therapeutic forgetting until further regulations are established.
Despite the opposition to therapeutic forgetting it is difficult to explain why individuals should be forced to relive negative experiences with flashbacks and dreams that are debilitating. Certainly the risks the Presidential Bioethics Council cite are valid but the benefits for PTSD patients are crucial. In addition, many Veterans argue that those with PTSD, as a result of combat in a War supported by the government, should be supported by politicians. Some of this support can come in the way of encouraging researchers to continue researching therapeutic forgetting. Argument that memory alteration is unethical and dangerous because it could be used unnecessarily have some validity. However, some memories such as those that cause PTSD are so hash that no person should have to live through them once let alone multiple times in flashbacks.
Altering memories is a particularly interesting subject because its possibilities are so varied. In the case of therapeutic forgetting, however, it is important to remember that this treatment could not make a person completely remove a memory. It could only soften the intensity of the traumatic experience. Studies on these should continue so that we can one day look forward to avoiding PTSD. No one is suggesting that the drugs be used to avoid all emotional pain, but rather that they be used to aid those people who would otherwise be disabled by traumatic memories.
1.) 1) Government's Report on Bioethics,
2.) 2)Center For Cognitive Liberty and Ethics,article on memory
3.)3)Exploratoriam Memory Site, Interactive Memory Site
4.) 4)Infinity Web Site, an Informative Web Source
5.) 5)New York Time Web Site, New York Times Magazine article
6.)5)National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
7.)5)Serendip, "Forgetting to Remember: The Source of your Symptoms?" by Kristine Hoeldtke
| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |