The Erasing of Memories

Should people be allowed to erase their memories?  Amanda Marcotte thinks so.  She gives three reasons: 1) memory isn’t as sacrosanct as people think, 2) just because a memory isn’t stored in your brain doesn’t mean it’s gone, and 3) fears that people will be irresponsible with this technology are way overblown. Marcotte raises the issue because, apparently, the technology to erase specific memories may be available in our lifetimes.  Her conclusion:

These technologies are intended for and will be used by people who have a memory that is crippling them. Post-traumatic stress disorder is no joke; symptoms range from insomnia to paranoia to fear or sadness so crippling that the patient can’t leave the house. Jobs are lost, marriages break up, and sufferers often resort to suicide. Purging their brain of the memory and putting it on paper where it can’t hurt them is an act of mercy. Again, it’s not like the patient will be unaware that they were in war/were raped/escaped from a tower on 9/11. They will know this and be familiar with all the relevant details, after they read it on paper. All that will really be missing is the feelings of fear and pain that are attached to the original biological memory.

You may have seen the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Marcotte references it several times as an example of what won’t happen with this technology.  I’m not sure I agree, either with her memory of the movie or her application of it, but let’s assume that she’s correct in saying that most people who employ this technology to erase their memories won’t do so willy-nilly or as a way to forget and act as if some event didn’t really happen.  I’m dubious, but okay.  The application of the technology that should concern us most is not the use of those crippled by a memory, but the exploitation of it by those not interested in personal choices, but power.

Instead of Spotless Mind, think Dollhouse, the two-season Joss Whedon series about a corporation that erases people’s memories so as to give them new ones and a new identity.  Why? To form them into dolls for use by the wealthy and privileged.   The technology that makes the dolls is ethically problematic itself, but as the story progresses, it makes clear that the uses of technology cannot be restricted to some approved intentional operation, not when the technology gives access to incredible power.

With Marcotte, I see that the technology to erase memories has benevolent possibilities, but apparently unlike her, I’m apprehensive about its other uses, specifically by those with power instead of the freedom in mind.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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27 Responses

  1. greginak says:

    I’m sceptical of this. I say that as someone who has some terrible memories that will be with me until i die. However they don’t cripple me and intimately part of me. I can’t see how wiping some memories wouldn’t make me less of who i am for better or worse. In fact wiping some memories raises the spectre of them coming back and then experiencing like they were fresh in the future.

    This also seems the place for a classic speech by James T Kirk

  2. Kimmi says:

    This reminds me of labotomies. For good reason, I’d think. Both were designed to fix “problems severe enough to make living nearly impossible.”

    NO, do not get rid of memories. Please, please, please, don’t do this! It is a horrible crime — even if it saves someone! We can do better than this! Hell, I’ve written stuff to try and do better than this… desensitization is a virtue — but forgetting entirely? Horrid, Horrid stuff.

    Would you really take the genocidal maniac, and erase him from the world? Can we not learn something from him? What do you do with the thing he is afterwards?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      How would this tech erase the genocidal maniac from the world or prohibit us from learning from him?

      • Kimmi says:

        Simple. A man without memories is not the same man as he was before. Tabula Rasa is a scary state.
        We cannot learn about a mind that no longer exists.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          Only if you assume that events remembered are accessible only by the memory of the one who experienced them. Memories can be narrated and shared, recorded before they are erased, no?

  3. Jaybird says:

    I don’t mind the whole “I erase my own memories” thing. That seems like something that folks would have the right to do.

    My problem is the gummint getting their hands on such tech.

    I wake up tomorrow feeling sore and not remembering much of yesterday after 6PM or so. Ah, I was probably arguing on the computer or playing video games or something, right? No biggie. These days all blur together.

  4. Fnord says:

    Could I make the same argument about antidepressants based on “A Brave New World”?

  5. Will H. says:

    Here’s a tune I wrote about… a long time ago.
    Based on a true story.
    Kid was on ritalin until 5th grade; couldn’t get mad. Kids teased him, etc. He came off the meds and spent all day beating the tar out of this one kid.

    Parenting by Prescription

    People like to push me ’round
    They don’t like me, I don’t like them
    They all think that I’m a clown
    A doped-up fool, an idiot
    Waiting for the day
    When I will make them pay
    One day I will get to get them back
    Cos Parenting by Prescription
    Is no real solution
    A powderkeg in the making
    And that’s a fact

    My parents like to push me ’round
    They don’t like me, I don’t like them
    Do this, do that, and don’t come down
    Never liking what I did
    Waiting for the day
    When the pills all go away
    And my medicine’s no longer prescribed
    Cos Parenting by Prescription
    Is no absolution
    Take me off so I can watch you die

    My teachers like to push me round
    They don’t like me, I don’t like them
    Read that book, and write this down
    Stuff my head all full of sh!t
    Waiting for the day
    When I can make them pay
    One day soon I’m gonna get them back
    Cos Parenting by Prescription
    Is no real solution
    Flush the meds and I’ll go on the attack

    A cool song really. Kind of tame punk/pop.

    • Jaybird says:

      Eight Miles High
      And when you come down
      You’ll find that it’s
      Stranger than known

      • Will H. says:

        Excellent rejoinder.

        Actually, I was going to write a thoughtful comment about anti-D’s losing their efficacy after three years, and the substituting of them in place of therapy, whereas their therapeutic purpose is to maintain function of patients long enough for the therapy to have an effect….
        …and at the last minute, I thought, “Screw it. Time to rock ‘n roll!”

        • James Hanley says:

          Will, as someone who is part of a long and ugly family history of bipolar disorder, I take great umbrage at your claim that the only therapeutic purpose of anti-depressants is to give time for therapy to have an effect. Therapy doesn’t change problems in brain chemistry. There are behavioral changes–that can be introduced through therapy–that help, but there is no substitute for the pharmaceuticals. And your three years efficacy line is bunkum. Yes, a particular drug can suddenly stop being effective, but I’ve been taking the same one for over a decade now, and it still works fine and dandy. My sister had one that suddenly stopped working for her, but she’d been taking it far longer than three years.

          I don’t want to turn this ugly, but I really am sick of people who dismiss life-long use of pharmaceuticals to control problems of brain chemistry. We don’t expect people who have body chemistry problems, like certain types of diabetes, to learn how to live without the medications they need, but for some reason when it comes to the brain, a lot of people still have dangerously old-fashioned notions that it’s “all in their head.” You can really cause some harm to people that way.

          • Will H. says:

            Bipolar disorder is significantly different because it is chemically related.
            My ex-wife is bipolar. I know a bit about it.
            But no, my brother is a psychologist (and an intolerable jackass), and I have a very dear friend that is also a psychologist (a wonderful lady– not a jackass).

            Any organic disorder is significantly different than behavioral disorders.
            However, behavioral disorders can also have organic effects, the same as atrophy is attributable to inactivity.

            But that is the therapy for bipolar– to keep the patient on lifelong medication.

            I don’t know if I painted with too broad a brush initially, or if your eyes saw wider brush strokes than what I had laid.
            Insignificant really. I sincerely regret getting your dander up with an improperly qualified statement.

          • James Hanley says:

            anti-D’s losing their efficacy after three years, and… their therapeutic purpose is to maintain function of patients long enough for the therapy to have an effect

            Seems pretty broad to me, but I’m glad it wasn’t really meant that way. I’m pretty sensitive because I run into such claims frequently, and I’ve known people who were told that their meds were a crutch and they needed to live without them. Fortunately they weren’t persuaded to make that experiment, but wondering if the criticisms were true did add to their level of distress.

          • Will H. says:

            The first statement was from an article in Psychology Today about two years ago. (referencing Zoloft and others of its class in particular)
            The second is from talking with psychologists about their practice, and through reading, particularly Glasser.
            Most disorders that have a chemical component are not chemically-based.
            Some are.
            Bipolar is a special case, for a number of reasons.
            One is that people with bipolar are notorious for coming off of their meds.
            They tend to think that there’s not anything wrong with them, and that the problem is really with everyone else.

            The problem I was trying to point out is that therapy is often difficult and challenges people, while medication is easy. It’s too easy to treat the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause, and that’s really why medications like Prozac and Zoloft are so popular.

  6. Will H. says:

    As for memory specifically, a lot of our thought lies in making connections between things; the ability to process those connections, making appropriate comparisons and distinctions.
    Marcotte wants to remove an incredible chunk of intelligence from the human species.
    Which, in fact, has been the main goal of the entirety of the body of her work wince she very first opened her stupid mouth.

    I’m not misogynistic.
    I just hate Amanda Marcotte.