Saturday, January 7, 2012

Should we erase painful memories? -

This article was adapted from the upcoming book, "Memory: Fragments of a Modern History," available in January from the University of Chicago Press.

One of the most tenacious themes of 20th-century memory research was the idea that people tormented by the memories of terrible experiences could benefit from remembering them, and from remembering them better. The assumption — broadly indebted to psychoanalysis — was that psychological records of traumatic events often failed to be fully "integrated" into conscious memories. As long as these records remained "dissociated," the sufferer was compelled to "relive" them instead of benignly remembering them. The more fully and appropriately one remembered terrible events, the more attenuated would be their emotional power.

But in the 1990s — a time when psychoanalytic assumptions were being challenged as never before — neuroscience researchers developed a new framework for thinking about remembering, forgetting, and the mind's record of past events. One result was a highly controversial new paradigm for treating traumatic memories. The problem with bad memories, these new researchers claimed, is not their complex and unresolved relation to one's sense of self, but the simple fact that they are unpleasant. These researchers defined emotional memory not in terms of repressed ideas, but by certain patterns of neuron action and the chemical changes they triggered. The next step was to change these patterns.

In the 19th century, character was commonly portrayed as something that was built up by daily experience and personal choices, through the memories and habits created by those everyday events. Character was the result of how one responded, moment by moment, to the challenges of daily life, because those responses built up a kind of internal machinery of habit. Character was defined, in a way, as an accretion of memory. The idea of "building character" meant striving to make appropriate choices because the hardware one created would become difficult or impossible to change later.

One scholar of the present day who has expressed concerns about memory dampening has used a different analogy to describe the relation between memory and personality, but nevertheless one that describes personality as being made out of discrete memories. William B. Hurlbut, a consulting professor in human biology at Stanford University, wrote that "the pattern of our personality is like a Persian rug." It was built "one knot at a time, each woven into the others. There's a continuity to self, a sense that who we are is based upon solid, reliable experience. We build our whole interpretation and understanding of the world based upon that experience or on the accuracy of our memories."

As recently as the 1990s, people who thought of themselves as survivors of terrible trauma often defined themselves in relation to what they remembered (or what they did not): They were survivors because they had survived certain defining events.Their character as mature adults came from "working through" these terrible memories. But there were also "survivors" who felt they had not truly survived their memories. They described a wounded self whose bad experiences stood in the way of personal realization. This latter convention involved the idea of a hidden, unimpaired self encumbered by adverse conditions. The idea is similar in some respects to the characterization used in the marketing of recent psychotropic drugs, especially Prozac. These drugs' enthusiasts sometimes declared that taking them allowed their "true" selves to emerge, often for the first time.

Philosophers, therapists, filmmakers and bloggers have been quick to reflect on the implications of memory erasure. One of the best-known projects to explore the subject is the 2004 film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," in which the main character attempts to have memories of his ex-girlfriend deleted from his mind pharmaceutically. The film embraces the new neuroscience of emotion, focusing on memories of feelings and the complex ways different kinds and parts of memories are stored in different places in the brain. Central to the plot is the idea that memories with different emotional associations are stored differently.