Researchers at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Raboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands are studying how to erase painful memories which are the main symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. On 22 December 2013, Time reported that the Dutch researchers found that specific and recent bad memories could be targeted and erased with shock treatments. But they have not established that entrenched negative memories, typical in PTSD sufferers, could be so treated.
This post and this post noted similar memory-erasing research currently undertaken in California and Massachusetts. All of these concepts recall the grotesque treatment dramatized in the 2004 sci-fi film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Some researchers find the notion of erasing memory to be "too invasive"; they are instead trying to decouple memory from associated negative emotions. And they acknowledge that erasing negative memories of important events is akin to erasing the primary sources of history:
Elizabeth Phelps, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University ... and other researchers have previously used far less invasive techniques to reduce the emotional charge attached to a memory— rather than eliminating the memory itself. For example, one study exposed participants to smells paired with shocks and then wafted the same scents into their noses as they slept. The volunteers didn’t forget which scent was linked with the shock— but they no longer had a fear response to it. “If you could take away the fear associated with the memory and keep the memory, that would be more optimal,” she says.
[T]he potential uses of a technique that erases personal memories raises profound ethical questions. Our memories are deeply related to our selves and many survivors of trauma get a sense of meaning and purpose from knowing what they have conquered. If negative or challenging memories are selectively removed, what would they leave behind?
“What if we wiped out all of the memories of the Holocaust?” asks Greely, “That would be terrible. On the other hand, the suffering caused by some memories is really powerful and I would want to prioritize letting people who want to relieve their suffering, as a general matter, relieve their suffering.”
PTSD not only involves frightening, traumatic memories; the memories also operate outside the normal time frame of the cerebral past. The sufferer loses grasp of the normal flow of time, so that the sequence of events is disrupted. One contributor to a dedicated forum wrote about PTSD, memories and their timeframe and how the past became the present:
If a negative memory is responsible for disrupting the sense of temporal sequence in a sufferer's brain, removing that memory may remove negative emotion. But it will not necessarily restore the person's sense of progression from past, to present, to future. Scientists poorly understand the connections between emotion, perception, memory and history. Removing one of these elements from an unknown cognitive equation invites more trouble.I find myself being able to have a better concept of time from my past. Its sounds crazy, but before it was just one big jumbled up moment. I am not sure if this is a real symptom, but my concept of time from my past was missing. I remembered like dates and anniversaries and such but not like a clear timeline. ...
I am reliving [past] events and memories today. I don't mean to. I don't want to. It has my body messed up. I wish the memories were not so clear. I wish they were not always the same. I wish I could go back and change them. I wonder why my body and mind react to memories they way it does. I wonder why I cant get them to just go away.
Today I am frustrated because it is not just memories alone that disturb me but the timeframe in which they occurred. Details that I don't want to remember. I dont want the memories at all. The good thing is that I am not in the memories. I feel present. ... Its just frustrating that things that happened years and years ago can influence my day today.
The Dutch study also confirmed that we use our memories to inform how we understand - and predict - the future. Erasing a negative event from the past in a person's mind may remove their ability to overcome that past and create a better future. Or it may even prevent them from orienting themselves in relation to the present and anticipated future. From the Time report:
Far from being the faithful record of the past that we like to imagine it as, memory is actually used by the brain mainly to predict the future — and this means that old memories are vulnerable to being re-written every time we access them. Previous research showed that this time-dependent “reconsolidation” occurs in animals, but this is the first time it has been demonstrated in humans.Finally, researchers have noted that when they remove a memory from the brain, they do not know what replaces it in a psychological sense. They might ask why there is such a stigma in modern societies and medical cultures against negative experiences and emotions that there is desire to eradicate them entirely as a way to promote mental health.
Is negativity not inextricably related, yin-yang-like, to positivity in human experience? And if that is the case, these researchers might consider the philosophy of time, and ask how negative events and memories can give rise to better times.
- All images from Traer Scott Photography are © Traer Scott and are reproduced under Fair Use for non-commercial discussion and review only.
See all my posts on Memory.