Escape from Memory

Last year, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind asked an intriguing question: If you could get rid of bad memories, would it be a good idea? The two lead characters in the film undergo a medical procedure to help them forget their painful relationship. But as one of them discovers, losing your memories, even the bad ones, means losing an important part of who you are. Recent scientific developments have given the movie new relevance. A drug called propranolol is being tested as a remedy for post-traumatic stress disorder. As the Washington Post explains, the drug "blocks the action of stress hormones that etch memories in the brain. The results suggest drugs may be able to prevent traumatic memories from being stored with such disturbing intensity in the first place, or perhaps deaden effects of old memories." So patients undergoing this treatment don't actually lose their bad memories -- though some scientists are hoping that one day even this will be possible. Instead, patients simply remember their trauma in a more detached way, with less emotion. But "the ability to manipulate memory," as the Post calls it, raises a whole new set of problems. For one thing, criminals could use this drug to dull memories of their crimes. If one's memory keeps dredging up guilt feelings, why not just pop a pill to make them go away? Even if that deadening of conscience didn't lead to more crimes -- and I think it surely would -- it would prevent criminals (and every other kind of sinner) from feeling convicted of sin. And it's not just conscience that could be drowned out. Neurobiologist James McGaugh, who strongly favors this research, nevertheless admits, "There is a chance that another memory could be affected. If the person gets a call and learns that they have a new grandchild . . . they might not have quite as strong an experience of that news." And it's not just our own joys and sorrows that could be muted; such a treatment could also rob us of the ability to empathize. As the President's Council on Bioethics put it, "The memory of being embarrassed is a source of empathy for others who suffer embarrassment; the memory of losing a loved one is a source of empathy for those who experience a similar loss." The Council even suggested that dulling memories could lead us to repeat, or at least trivialize, the mistakes of the past: "Consider the case of a person who has suffered or witnessed atrocities that occasion unbearable memories: for example, those with firsthand experience of the Holocaust. The life of that individual might well be served by dulling such bitter memories, but . . . would the [life of the] community as a whole -- would the human race -- be served by such a mass numbing of this terrible but indispensable memory?" It seems the character in Eternal Sunshine was right to fear losing his memories. Our memories not only help each of us to shape our identity; they also help shape the world we live in. Dulling the pain of bad memories, as tempting as that seems, is a bad idea, no matter what the scientists tell us, for it would leave the world a poorer and harsher place.


Chuck Colson



  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary