It was inevitable that everyone on campus would forget Saint Patrick’s Day, but most of us would have paid to forget the morning after. According to a Feb. 17 article in Wired magazine, the time where this is possible is within reach— “In the near future the act of remembering will be a choice.”
Scientist Karim Nader conditioned a group of rats to fear a sound by electrically shocking them. After reinforcing this for several weeks, Nader injected the rats with a protein synthesis blocker as he played the noise. Suddenly the fear was gone. The rats forgot the memory of the shocks associated with the noise. Nader proved memory reconsolidation. Memories are not videos or pictures in the mind, static and never changing. They are chemically and electrically recreated every time they are remembered. Timing is everything — “to get people to forget something, just ask them to remember it.”
If memories are recreated with the act of remembering, the highly sought after eyewitness account in the justice system might be worth nothing more than a fiction novella. Witness recounts of illegal activity are the most persuasive to juries and cause the most unanimous convictions. But according to Nader’s research, these shouldn’t be trusted. The witness isn’t lying, but rather creating a memory where the events have been indoctrinated with their own emotions, justifications and biases, without their knowledge or conscious consent. But while this discovery reveals cracks in the justice system, it works to fill them in the medical field.
This is a huge step for the cure and treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disease of memory. Persons who have experienced a traumatic event are haunted by the memories they can’t forget. But it’s not the memories that cause their stress, it is the negative emotions that are injected into the memories as they are being remembered. In time, scientists will and should be able to erase the memories that are haunting PTSD patients.
But the 2003 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — which the article mentions differs in memory-deletion styles — taught us the evils of mind-wiping. After making the choice to erase memories of his girlfriend, Jim Carey regrets his decision upon learning that he had those memories erased.
It’s hard to argue with this. The past is gone as soon as it happens and only lives on through our memories. But as Nader proved with his research, those memories are not true representations of reality.
Instead, our minds reconstruct them while inserting false realities and emotions in the process. Our memories are the basis for who we are. Without them we would lose ourselves. Being able to delete certain memories gives us unprecedented power over our lives; past, present and future.
And this could be as dangerous as it could be helpful.
Imagine a dictator who could erase the memories of his subjects, or an abusive parent erasing memories of the abusive relationships with his family. If the power of wiping memories becomes commercial, we create a society that allows the average person to delete every bad or painful event in their life. How will we as a population learn and grow into better people if we can’t remember the times when we were at our worst?
With every passing year, it seems we get closer to the science fiction advances of books and movies as well as the dystopias these books warn against.
Jesse Klein is an LSA freshman and assistant editorial page editor.