Would You Forget About It, If You Could?

Everyone has some bad memories. Would you erase a bad memory if you could?

That’s the premise of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a wonderful movie from 2004 in which Jim Carrey (playing a serious role) and Kate Winslet use a new technology to erase their memories of each other. As you might expect, things don’t go as planned.

The idea that we might get rid of painful memories raises some interesting questions. Is it right to erase what is part of ourselves, something that contributes to making us who we are? Don’t bad memories help us avoid making the same old mistakes again? Does having painful memories help us appreciate our happy memories and the good things that happen to us?

We might have to consider such questions in the relatively near future. Scientists aren’t yet ready to erase our memories, but some of them are working on a way to make bad memories less painful. It isn’t clear from the article below whether the details of a memory can be changed, or whether it’s the emotion associated with a memory that can be changed. What is clear is that ingesting a certain drug (propranolol) within a window of time after a memory is formed or after it’s recalled can change the memory’s emotional impact. In theory, a traumatic memory can become relatively benign. 

The premise of the article is that this method will work because it takes a certain amount of time for a memory to be “consolidated” (added to our long-term memory), and each time we recall a memory, it is “reconstituted” (reconstructed from some underlying arrangement of the stuff in our brains). If the drug is administered at the right time, the process of consolidation or reconstitution can be modified.

Perhaps it’s a sign of having a “half-empty” personality, but I’d be more than willing to remove a few bad memories or make some of them less powerful. There doesn’t seem to be much difference between getting rid of a bad memory and avoiding a bad situation that you will later remember.

In fact, one of the benefits of being dead (there aren’t a lot, but there are at least a couple) is that you don’t have to remember how you screwed up that time or what that so and so did to you. Even if there’s an afterlife (don’t count on it), you won’t have to remember all the bad stuff unless you’re in hell — or heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.


3 thoughts on “Would You Forget About It, If You Could?

  1. Maybe in hell we contemplate our missed opportunities? Maybe the drug would make hell more palatable? Maybe we are already in hell? (It must be the heat; whew.)

  2. Hmmmm, dampening memories with beta-blockers. I can see how this would work but I wonder about about the side effects. Say if you recalled a happy as well as sad memories. Its hard just to think of one things I guess, as some of us may self sooth with a happy memory, and that say got dampened too. Would you just in up dampening all the good and the bad, and just end up with a whole lot of Meh!

  3. I definitely wouldn’t want to be an early test subject. And it’s certainly hard to see how they will be able to target particular memories, especially ones from the distant past. On the other hand, I have a few memories that I’d like to expunge. So if the technology were ever proven, I’d consider signing up. I doubt that will happen in our lifetimes, however, mine anyway,

    Nevertheless, I think it’s only a matter of time (a long time) before memories are modifiable through some means or other. Assuming there’s a physical basis to memory, that physical basis will probably be subject to manipulation one day. Then you’ll be able to visit your local mall, like Arnold Schwarzenegger did in that movie, or plug yourself into your computer, and get a memory makeover.

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