Author (Greek Version): Christine Zaimbidou
Psychiatrist – Psychotherapist
Translator – Editor: Sofia Poimenidou
Philologist – Text Editor
Would you erase a face or a memory if you had the power to? Which memory would you choose and why? Would it make sense to do that at all? Can we erase anything forever and march forward light headed, turn a new blank page after lotus eating and cross successfully to oblivion?
Most people at some point in their lives have wished they could stop thinking of a specific bad memory and with a magic eraser or a pill, delete it and continue as if it never happened. Despite the unpleasantness of bad memories, most people manage to continue living a fairly normal life. In certain cases however, such as people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the trauma and aftereffect memories, come along with psychiatric symptoms, stress and mood disorders.
Memories are created at the neuron synapse junction though protein activation where a memory is created and kept alive. Biophysical and biochemical modifications in the brain are provoked, responding to external stimuli, leading to storage information in the form of a memory (Semon, 1921). Some neurons are responsible for creating memories related to the feeling of fear or imminent threat. Memories are not stored in some specific area of the brain but they create new neuron synapses, changing our cells “network”. Every time we mentally “visit” a memory, we reactivate it, make it stronger and, and the same time recall it by trying to “experience” it again (reconsolidation). Furthermore, every time we recall an event in our memory, we intensify the emotions connected with it, such as fear, pain or grief.
Ιn negative memory cases, memories and flashbacks are charged with intense negative emotional overload, often resulting in negative thoughts about ourselves. The feelings and thoughts that accompany these memories whenever they reoccur, inevitably resurface along with them. The common characteristic of the reoccurring thoughts-conclusions is the extreme and inflexible overgeneralization. Our brain depends on a fragment of an isolated event, failing to process it or make sense of it. Under normal circumstances, our brain is capable of executing complex cognitive processes and takes into account an excessive amount of experiences, actions and possibilities in order to reach a conclusion. Our brain then isolates the experience, evaluates it under the prism of collective memory and leads the experience to functional solutions. Nevertheless, when the above mentioned negative experiences occur, the flow of thought becomes strictly restrictive, isn’t subject to logical arguments and leads to dysfunctional conclusions.
Can we erase those memories? Can we forget? Trauma psychology specialty uses methods such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), helping the brain locate painful memories and flashbacks and process them, removing irrational beliefs and unhelpful thoughts and making sense of the traumatic experience on a personal level so that it stops hurting us. These techniques don’t erase the memories, but only their negative consequences.
Surveys conducted on snails at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and McGill University have shown that production of pharmaceutical drugs may be possible, which could erase this type of memories, while leaving the rest of them intact. Use of pharmaceutical treatment with these drugs would be feasible in cases of post-traumatic disorders and drug addiction. These surveys showed that during a post-traumatic event, our memory stores data which is directly and indirectly connected to this event. Indirect data consists of random stimuli and information, e.g. it was raining the night they robbed us. The indirect information many times leads to dysfunctional behavior and fears and may prevent an individual to continue useful and daily activities, as it correlates it with the traumatic event, while direct information is useful and can protect the individual in the future. It was discovered through the survey that we can erase the secondary memories without affecting the primary ones, by medically aiming specific proteins (Hu, Schacher, et. al. 2017). In other experiments that were carried out with similar reasoning, the researchers tried to cause alterations to the metabolism and the neuron synapse junction, thus assisting rats to delete a memory (Gräff, et. all., 2014).
Simultaneously, other studies have shown that vigorous effort to forget, may delete even traces left by experiences in our subconscious. It was observed that people who tried hard to forget, underwent an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan, which showed a reduced activity in the visual cortex that is related to the memory mental display (Henson & Anderson, 2017). Whereas people are concerned, this succeeds if we try to disconnect the memory’s object from the context in which we include it. For example, if a song reminds us of a separation, we will have to listen to it in a different new environment, giving our brain the ability to connect it with something else. The aim of active memory repulsion is the ability to cease the memory recall after a period of time.
All above though, is just research data and its scientifically unknown whether this data can apply to complex neural systems such as the humans have and to memories related to intense emotion-charged situations.
Although research studies are currently conducted on snails and rats, questions regarding moral concerns arise, especially if taking into account the hope expressed by many researchers, that the pharmaceutical industry will divert in developing specific medicine to erase our memories. The possibility of developing such medication bears the danger of abuse, especially if we consider how many means man tries to use in order to forget or reduce pain (painkillers, alcohol, sleeping pills, etc).
Traumatic memories, although painful, shape us as people through failure, rejection and tears. If we delete memories (because we evaluate some actions as erroneus or too painful), aren’t we in danger since we lack knowledge, of repeating the same mistakes, therefore trapped in an endless vicious circle of our own existence? A blank page would give us the ability to rewrite our story the way we want. Demons like insomnia, depression, cold night sweats, fear and addiction make us want to forget the traumatic event forever. However, no-one can reassure us that in 10 years time we will be able to evaluate anything as equally traumatic, as time (whether the best or the worst doctor), can’t be taken into consideration.
Setting aside for a while very painful traumatic experiences, such as torture and rape etc., let us take a critical stand for unpleasant, painful experiences that many people wish they could totally erase. Let’s look at a possible version as it was written in a familiar script: A company lacking moral concerns launches ads advertising its ability to delete things, situations, experiences and people from our minds. They are able to drive away the clouds using a magic eraser clearing our minds, bringing eternal sunshine. The mind is now free to follow the same steps, make the same choices and maybe repeat the same mistakes, as defined by our inner selves. The inner self that at some point is going to make us cry out in desperation: “please, let me keep that memory, just this one” (Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, 2004).
Caplan, A. (2013). Deleting Memories.
Gagnepain, P., Henson, R. N., & Anderson, M. C. (2014). Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence via targeted cortical inhibition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(13), E1310-E1319.
Hu, J., Ferguson, L., Adler, K., Farah, C. A., Hastings, M. H., Sossin, W. S., & Schacher, S. (2017). Selective erasure of distinct forms of long-term synaptic plasticity underlying different forms of memory in the same postsynaptic neuron. Current Biology, 27(13), 1888-1899.
Trei, L. I. S. A. (2004). Psychologists offer proof of brain’s ability to suppress memories.