We rely on our memory for pretty much everything in our lives. We use it to remember how to get to work or school; we use it to drive; we use it to make connections to others. However, our memory is an imperfect mechanism. There are several ways that our memory can fail us. The most commonly considered memory failure is forgetting. While this happens to virtually everyone, there are several people for who forgetting becomes pathological, such as with the various forms of dementia. Another way that our memory mechanisms can fail is with the sudden and unwarranted flashbacks that accompany Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While not fully understood, it is believed that this results from improperly integrated and stored memories.
With progress in both the pharmacological and biotech worlds, we are not looking to target many of our pathological memory problems. Memory dampening drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranolol, have been around far several years. While propranolol is not labeled as a memory dampener drug, it can be prescribed for off label purposes, leading to its use in order to dampen memories when taken shortly after a traumatic event has occurred (Kolber, 2006). There are many ethical issues raised with the idea of being able to alter our perceptions of certain events. While the President’s Council on Bioethics under President Bush weighed in on the ethical implication of memory blunting, this is still an issue being debated. There are also potential legal ramifications, particularly for survivors of sexual assault who would like to dampen the emotional affect of the assault, but would also like to pursue pressing charges against their attacker (Chandler, 2013).
While we are looking for pharmacological solutions to the issue of pervasive memories, we are looking to biotechnological innovation to solve the problem of forgetting. There are a number of companies, including the startup Kernel, looking to create prosthetic memory devices to help people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more. Kernel hopes to restore the ability to store and access long term memories in people who are losing that capability (Gallego, 2016).
The ability to alter the memories of ourselves and others has been a very popular topic in film and television for over a decade now. While we are not exactly in the space of implanting memories a la Inception, we are facing the ability to alter how and what people remember. The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind depicts a world in which the technology to erase and alter memories has become widely available and is being used not just to get rid of pervasive memories, but to forget about failed relationships. This asks the question if we can get rid of our unpleasant memories, will we be unable to learn from the past?
(Source: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
While Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind examines what happens if the ability to get rid of unpleasant memories become accessible, the episode of Black Mirror “The Entire History of You” looks at what our lives would be like if we could remember everything. By using an implant, people are able to record and rewatch every moment of their lives, functioning as an artificial memory store. While many of the characters in the show praise the technology, the episode shows how remembering everything exactly as it happened is not always a good thing.
(Source: “The Entire History of You”)
Chandler, Jennifer A.; Mogyoros, Alexandra; Martin Rubio, Tristana; Racine, Eric. “Another Look at the Legal and Ethical Consequences of Pharmacological Memory Dampening: The Case of Sexual Assault” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 41.4 (2013): 859-871
“The Entire History of You.” Black Mirror. Written by Jesse Armstrong, Directed by Brian Welsh, Channel 4, 2011
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Focus Features, 2004. Film.
Gallego, Jelor. “New Startup to Solve Memory Loss with Brain Prosthetics.” Futurism. 2016.
Kolber, Adam J. "Therapeutic Forgetting: The Legal and Ethical Implications of Memory Dampening." Vanderbilt Law Review 59.5 (2006): 1559-1626.