In today’s *New York Times* there is a fascinating story about recent advances in neuroscience that could lead to erasing bad memories and, as a logical corollary, enhancing memory that might otherwise be diminished by age or disease.
The scientists describe the painstaking, molecule-by-molecule detail of their studies and the hunches, a father’s suggestion, collaboration, and plain good luck that have gone into their research. Then, almost poetically, they go on to describe their sense that, in human experience, when a memory is triggered in one cell, that cell “speed-dials” all the other cells of the brain that might hold any aspect of the memory (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, emotion) to reformulate the whole. This act of reconstituting the memory strengthens, or thickens the communications network among the relevant brain cells and, they suggest, preserves memory. Further, they have identified the substance present in the brain which they believe is key to this reconstitution taking place.
I find this entirely credible. I know, first-hand, that my brain cells have a dastardly efficient speed-dial system that, without pharmaceutical and psychological intervention, brings out the worst in me. For the longest time, they did this “communicating” behind my back, without my awareness. Why was I so angry? Why was I over-reacting to an otherwise innocent incident? Why couldn’t I make the rational decision to get out of Dodge when I needed to? Why didn’t I feel entitled to pleasure or joy? Why was I never sure it was my turn yet? Why was I always performing? Why did I respond with fury to being discounted or dismissed? Why am I afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, even someone who is hurting mine?
Finally, 10 or 15 years ago, a wise physician told me. Without using the term, he explained how experience lays down a trace in the brain (an engram) which can be triggered emotionally (as well as rationally, but in my case, it was emotional) and now, we’re told, not only triggered but deepened, creating a veritable rut, like an ugly cell tower, in the brain. Even if the memory is unconscious, it is *known* and, over the years, shapes the way a person sees and interacts with the world – for the good, I suppose, as well as for the bad. As I have thought about this over the years, trying to intellectualize an emotional state of being that I was not particularly proud of, I have wondered what, precisely, the memory I trigger is. I am awed by its perverse power, but I don’t know the genesis of it, whether it is in the words my father spoke (more often, yelled), the fear he generated, the anger he inflicted, or the emotional chaos he loosed upon us. Perhaps the memory isn’t about him after all, but about my response to him and how I thought I could avoid his rage, if only I . . . .
Whatever it is, my brain’s speed-dial system is so damn efficient I can be infantilized even today, five decades after the fact, if I forget to remember that I am a grown-up now with grown-up tools to fight my demons, and that I can, with anti-depressants, short-circuit the path back to those original, searing memories, filter my most debilitating thoughts, recover a healthier normal, and act accordingly. I occasionally have to be reminded that there is a reason – and now, it appears, a highly sophisticated neuro-scientific reason -- I feel the way I do, that I am not, really, a bad and worthless person.
This new research, however, introduces the possibility of excising that bad memory – not merely muting it or filtering it out, but permanently taking it out of commission. Mind you, if I suffered from Post Traumatic Stress, brought on by rape, or incest, or witnessing murder, or war, or torture or Katrina, I would be the first in line. Bring it on, I would say. Take it out. With PTSD, you’ve got a single event, and single cause of the pain, something that probably happened after your childhood, after your values were formed and your emotional life matured, something that, once excised, would allow you to return to your own individual normal. I can conceptualize it as a kind of appendix – something you certainly didn’t ever need and, once it started causing pain, needed to be removed. Traumatic stressors could be like that.
Still, I wonder. Are we called to rewrite Life as we know it? To delete hours, days, weeks of time that actually existed, to forget things that really happened? Even if we can? If we erase the individual trauma, will we record it collectively? Will we remember right from wrong? Or might we lose sight, permanently, of all that terrorizes or shames us and forget what motivates us to work for peace and human and civil rights? I don’t know.
I also don’t know about memories like mine. Who am I, what do I become, what’s real and what’s not, how do I explore my relationship with the world, how do I identify myself if I erase a powerful part of my life, any part of my life? If I hated third grade, and doctors could zap it out of my brain, would I forget how to multiply, too? Could I play jacks, or swing on the monkey bars? Would I be a different person? Should I be? And who’s in charge of saying?
When my father-in-law had Alzheimer’s we watched the man we had known and loved disappear right before our eyes, one amazing brain function at a time. It was crazy. He couldn’t remember who we were, but he knew his prayers. He would tell us he wanted to go home, though he didn’t know where it was and he was living there anyway; but whenever someone entered the room, as long as he could, he remembered his manners and stood to greet them. Eventually, however, there was no “there” there. He was a physical specimen and a disease; but he was not much of a person. So I would want to be very, very careful about disabling any functions of any person’s brain.
At the same time, if the research detailed in this story in the *Times* could be used to enhance memory to reverse or stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia, what a magnificent bonanza that might be. Here, too, however, ethical and spiritual issues abound. I am left, for today anyway, with admiration and awe for the brain and its infinite complexity -- and gratitude for the ability to think about things like this.
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