Would You Erase Bad Memories If You Could? by Ruth Littlewood

According to The Guardian, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim to have identified the gene responsible for memory destruction in mice, apparently with the intention of treating those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has created speculation that there might one day be a pill that can delete traumatic memories from the brain, allowing the survivor to live as though the event had never happened. Aside from ethical quandaries about the dangers of playing with the mind – which reminds me of sci-fi films such as Vanilla Sky and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – it also prompts the question: would people really want to get rid of their traumatic memories?

Eternal Sunshine

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, the writer from The Guardian article, was violently attacked in the street by three men and subsequently suffered from PTSD. Her symptoms included irrational outbursts of anger, flashbacks, paranoia and sleeplessness, making everyday life difficult for her, before she was given a course of cognitive behavioural therapy through the NHS that helped her to process the trauma. She muses in the article, ‘If you’d been through an experience like that, wouldn’t you take the magic pill?’

It is an interesting question to pose. Without wanting to belittle the trauma that Cosslett suffered, which was undoubtedly extremely disturbing, I think that it is important to note the difference between her situation and that of groups of victims that are traumatised. The attack upon Cosslett was random and she was the only victim. However, in the case of a group of victims, such as the female political prisoners in my study, their trauma is experienced as a group. The violence and suffering of a Civil War extends the nature of the trauma beyond the individual, creating a collective suffering. This fuses all of the experiences of the victims into a sort of mnemonic patchwork-quilt, in which all the victims can recognise their own hardships while recognising that it links into an overarching network of trauma. It is not only a way of identifying who you are, creating a community of those who have suffered together, but a way of standing in opposition to those who have inflicted the trauma and of remembering those who did not survive.

In Cosslett’s situation, the impulse to delete a traumatic memory from the brain is completely understandable: by erasing her memory of the attack, she would erase only a few minutes of her own life, thereby essentially deleting the event from history. However, if erasing the traumatic memory meant erasing your identity within a group and forgetting friends and loved ones who had perished, the choice might be less simple. It would entail obliterating entire lives from your memory, as well as letting go of the principles for which you fought, eradicating the struggle and rendering it pointless. In this case, I think that most people would choose the pain of remembering over the relief of forgetting.

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5 Responses to Would You Erase Bad Memories If You Could? by Ruth Littlewood

  1. David Lloyd says:

    This is a really interesting post that raises some important questions that were absent in the original Guardian article. I strongly believe that our memories, however painful, are intrinsic to the nature of the people we become. That said, I agree that it might be desirable to be able to erase an isolated and unpleasant incident that may have a marked negative effect on a person’s ability to function in social situations, on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, I would never claim to understand the depth of emotion and incapacitation experienced by sufferers of PTSD.

    In parallel with questions of what we would want to erase, and what memories we might not want to lose, there’s a question of how such a ‘pill’ might actually affect our minds. If I wished to erase the memory of, say, a traumatic attack, would I also lose the memory of the deaths of loved ones (and with it the memory of the last time we had together)?

    For me there are unique ethical questions that need to be answered whenever we deal with procedures that affect a person’s memory, or thought processes. An individual can, of course, consent to undergo such a procedure, but is it possible to fully explain, understand, or even accurately predict all of the changes that might occur in a person’s mind following such an intervention?

  2. I completely agree with your arguments David, thank you for your comments! I was discussing my blog with a friend last night and she made similar points – how can you target what is to be erased and what is to be saved? In many ways this would be the principal risk for me – the danger that you might accidentally erase everything, or the wrong thing. However, your memory is an integral part of who you are, which is why it is so particularly sad when older people suffer from dementia and seem to lose their identity.
    Another interesting point is how would it work? If you erased a bad memory, would it leave an unanswerable lacuna in your memory? Would all of the memories that link in with it be destroyed so there was no chance of accidentally leading yourself to the gap in your memory (as happens in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)?
    Even though I understand the need for trauma sufferers to find some kind of relief from their symptoms, I actually find the concept of the pill quite dangerous. The mind is such a complex thing and it is scary to think that people might try to alter it.
    One final thought – imagine if the pill fell into the wrong hands…..! Scenario suggestions please 🙂

  3. David Lloyd says:

    Your final thought reminds me of an idea I was mulling over when I wrote my original response – that of the parallel between this issue, and that of the debate over legalising euthanasia. Specifically, I refer to the argument that a person may consent to be humanely killed by a doctor, but in principle may, at a later date, be unable to withdraw that consent if they had changed their mind, but lost the ability to communicate. I won’t offer my views on the strength of this argument as it’s not the crux of the matter we’re discussing, but still I see similar issues at stake here. The (voluntary) loss of memory might entail a loss of the ability to choose to reverse the process, even if reversal were possible, as the understanding of what one had lost would presumably be lost too. Though this argument flirts with being circular, it surely has some merit – one doesn’t choose just the (already significant) loss of memories, but presumably also the knowledge that those memories existed and the ability to consider the impact of the procedure after the event.

  4. Danial Sidek says:

    Well, No. And it is not the rights of a human being to erase good or bad experiences, as those happened for a reason. And that reason is without good & bad experience, you will not become who you are, now, today.

    A bad memory is needed in a life of a human as bad memory promotes survival instinct. My argument is that; A young baby learnt that by touching sharp object (E.G. Cactus) hurts; Touching sharp object is a bad memory; And the young baby could relate the cactus, to the other sharp objects like needle or other objects as being sharp, if the objects share the same properties. Therefore, by having a bad memory, the baby is acquiring a skill to survive.

    No matter how bad an experience could be, altering/modifying/erasing isn’t going to help the person.

    Personally, I was involved in an accident that almost took my life. I was left paralyzed and I wasn’t able to move a bit. I could tell my brain to move my fingers but the finger failed to response, I was absolutely sure I was about to die and I would see the angel soon, and I remember the warmness of my mother’s touch.

    But, I lived to tell the tale despite of the massive tourniquet absorbing in definitive blood! I never wanted to erase this memory because without this memory, I would never appreciate and understand life, to live life to the fullest, to breathe, to love, and to craft it my way, and to be able to tell myself life is great!

    That decision to live was not in my hand to make! It was never was. It would never be as it has been always in God’s hand…

    My answer is, no. All experiences, good or bad, are beneficial for you.

    Thank you.

  5. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you so much for reading and for contributing your personal experiences of traumatic memory. Firstly, I am so sorry to hear about your accident but I am really pleased that you have lived to tell the tale, as you put it! It must have taken an awful lot of character and mental strength to get through such an experience and I really admire that.

    I am not a religious person myself but I definitely agree that your memory of the accident has clearly shaped you as a person and has made you who you are. I don’t think there is a right or a wrong answer to this but I do have a question for you. Do you think that you would feel the same way if your accident had not been an accidental but an act of persecution or vengeance? I think the women that the author of the article in The Guardian was talking about suffer from traumatic thoughts because they were victimised deliberately by another human being.

    Many of the female political prisoners whose writing is part of my research actually share your opinion actually. I don’t believe that they would want to erase the memories of the bad things that happened to them for two reasons. First, they have lived to tell the tale (just like you!) and they feel that they need to represent the things that happened to them because they were persecuted by the Spanish government. However, I also don’t think that they would want to erase those memories because it forms a part of their identity. They spent so many years fighting for what they believed in and all the scars (both literal and figurative) help them to identify as part of a certain group of people – their trauma makes them who they are.

    Thanks again for reading and I hope my response clarifies my blog a bit!


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