By Ishan Dasgupta


When most of us think of memories we are referring to the retention of past experiences or imagined events, known as episodic memory. Recent research suggests that episodic memory can be modified with increasing selectivity. If the deletion and insertion of memories can be done safely, should people be allowed to do this on whim? Or, should memory modification be treated with more care?


A Thought Experiment
Summer vacation season has just started. College students are leaving for their existential, post-graduate romps around the world. Professors are anticipating beach weeks with their families. And smells of barbeques bring back memories of blissful times spent catching fireflies into the late evening. Sadly, you can’t focus on any of these things. You have been almost sessile after a horrific break-up. All you can fixate on is the memories of how your relationship unraveled, and how maybe one decision here or there could have changed the entire scenario. Your friends and colleagues poke fun at the fact that you’ve spent three months sulking, with very little motivation to do anything. You imagine that this feels almost as bad as a death in the family, or returning from a war.


Deciding you’ve had enough, the next morning you go directly to your local memory modification module, and ask for an especially strong dose of Forget-Me-Not®. After taking the dose, you follow a nurse to a stock memory room where you browse, but with your meager income can only afford a generic relationship memory—you will remember having dated someone, you never talked to about anything meaningful, but you were content. You broke up because you wanted something more serious. The nurse hands you another drug, Re-Chord®, commonly used to combat Alzheimer’s disease, and tells you to lay back while the technician transmits new portions of a year’s worth of memories to enhance your brain.


One might ask, is any of this problematic? Surely, from a strictly utilitarian perspective, J.S. Mill would be proud of a society that attempted to reduce traumatic memories, and some of the related pain that makes finding happiness difficult. One could further question whether there is any practical purpose to holding onto unpleasant memories, or if they are just unfortunate baggage that comes with the (pre-modified) human experience.


On the other hand, maybe memories are vitally important to our existence as humans, and integral to our evolutionarily-developed learning mechanisms. Break-ups hurt, but one can learn from them, gathering clues about more compatible mates, which can lead to more stable relationships. Memories help us to regulate our behavior by allowing us to compare past results against current choices. Tampering with this process might not be a good idea.



State of the Science
Although the last few paragraphs might seem like science fiction (think Total Recall fused with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the events described are much closer to reality than Schwarzenegger’s chances of becoming America’s president. A recent study of the drug Metyrapone has shown interesting and enduring results — decreasing an individual’s memory of negative events. In the study, thirty-three men learned a story composed of neutral and negative events. After three days, the subjects were either given Metyrapone (in a single or double dose) or a placebo.  Then they were asked to recall events from the story. This recall was retested four days later.


Researchers found that men who were given the double dose of Metyrapone were more impaired than other subjects in remembering negative events, while showing no impairment in recalling neutral events. The drug, which acts by decreasing the stress hormone cortisol, is not currently commercially available. The findings have spurred investigations into other strategies for reducing cortisol in the brain as a means of developing an effective intervention that specifically targets and impairs the ability to remember negative events with minimal impact on other memories.

Perhaps more surprising is the state of the science for the induction of false memories in place of real ones. In one review paper, the authors describe four different errors that commonly occur in autobiographical memory: individuals incorrectly remembering childhood memories, misidentifying the time frame of events, developing a biased memory for previous attitudes and mental states, and even forgetting real events altogether. This unreliableness in human memory may be a reason false memories are easily induced.


For example, researchers have illustrated the potential for memory-distortion effects through forced confabulation. In one study, researchers, Ackil and Zaragoza, showed children and college students an excerpt from a film depicting a boy’s experience at summer camp. After the film, the subjects were asked to answer questions about the film’s events and were told they had to answer every question. Subjects were randomly assigned to groups, and one group received a question that referenced a nonexistent event: “Why did the boy say Sullivan had stolen.” A week later the students were again asked about events in the film. The authors found that, across all age groups, individuals who had been given the question referencing the nonexistent event were more likely to create a false memory of that event than were individuals in the control group.


One can imagine that our methods for inducing false memories will improve with a better understanding of the neuroscience behind memory consolidation, and with it, potentially the rise of an industry targeted at giving people memories that they couldn’t otherwise fulfill in life.


Ethical Challenges

So, if these sorts of memory modifications are not all that sci-fi after all, what ethical questions should we be trying to address as we enter this new terrain?


Do humans have a moral obligation to remember true events?
Former Greenwall Fellow, S. Matthew Liao (you can also follow him at  Ethics Etcargues that remembering an event like the holocaust is morally important in society, even though erasing it from our collective conscience could eliminate a lot of pain. We will need to decide how to value the historical and ethical importance of memory, and whether certain types of memories will have to be placed out of the reach of modification therapies.


Will memory modification fundamentally change a person’s desires and therefore influence their life outlook and decisions? Although it seems possible that desires and memories could be separate, it is something we know very little about. Since memory is “stored” in a network of interlocking neurons that innervate numerous other parts of the brain, rather than in more discrete packets like in a computer, it is conceivable that erasing one’s memory could have more global effects including an impact on desires. But, then again, in our current state, we constantly modify certain memories (not always consciously): choosing to delete some, while cherishing others, picking new values, while abandoning old ones. The difference may just be the conscious intent to change oneself through drugs, as compared to changes related to innate processes.


How will we define appropriate use and prevent abuse/misuse of memory modifications? Efforts would be required to keep the technology from falling into the wrong hands. Criminals could potentially erase illicit memories, allowing them to not only avoid the guilt of committing a crime, but also eliminate one form of evidence. You cannot share the truth, if you don’t remember it. One can also imagine challenges related to government abuses. With this technology, activities like unethical interrogations and assassinations could be erased from both physical and mental records.


The question of which memories are ‘bad enough’ to warrant modification is of vital importance. Central to this problem is the challenge that we have very few tools for objectively measuring pain and happiness, at least in a metaphysical sense.


Referring back to the original thought-experiment, we do not know if one person’s memory of a break-up can be as traumatic as another’s recovery from participating in a war or the death of a close friend.  We lack an objective measure to evaluate grief and compare its impact on different individuals. Since we can’t objectively measure bad memories or compare them, we will have difficulty setting limits and telling people their memories are not bad enough to warrant treatment.


Ultimately, as a society we will need to determine whether allowing some people a genuine benefit will outweigh the risks of harm to people who use these therapies without sufficient cause. We will also need to struggle with and better define the overarching practical and ethical value of negative memories.



How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

-Alexander Pope


Ishan Dasgupta, B.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is interested in the enhancement of human traits and the implications this has for society


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6 Responses to “Op-Ed: Modifying Memories”

  1. A good bioethics movie on this is “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”

  2. Bioethics Bro says:

    PLEASE NOTE – Looks like the first commenter didn’t quite make it to the 6th paragraph…

  3. Dawood says:

    The ethicists are still strugling how do deal with the issue of patient record files and their cofidentiality, medical science advancement trapping them with this upcoming huge lott of dilemmas.
    it is something like that a physician will become shaykh(spiritual care-taker) for patient……food for thoughts.

  4. Bioethics Bro,

    What I meant to say was, Eternal Sunshine is a good bioethics movie that highlights exactly what you are discussing. And yes, you reference it, but I am recommending people watch it. By watching it, people will get a better sense of this “crazy” new developments you speak of.

  5. Boomerang41144 says:

    While there may be isolated situations where it’s appropriate to redact in some form or fashion some aspect of a person’s past (e.g. Witness Protection Programs), my gut reaction is that nothing good will come from this type of memory manipulation.

    In the case of the original thought experiment, what happens in six months or six years when the vissicitudes of life cause the life paths of these two to intersect again? They have two different realities for the same set of events, not to mention intervening life experiences generated perhaps from this part of their memories.

    Transpose this inconsistency onto a grander scale and the smooth pavement of our reality becomes a bumpy cobblestone path. Quaint, perhaps, but not always practical.

    Certainly age, stress and other factors can wreak havoc with recollections, but to induce this, however well intentioned … well, methinks I recall something about Caesar and some “unto rendering.”

  6. Ishan says:


    You bring up some very good points. I think ultimately what you mention will be a reason people who has less traumatic memories will themselves opt-out of a possible memory modification treatment. The consequences of modification, I think, will be pretty heavy. There will be many side effects and it will be a wholly life changing event. Therefore, I think improper use will curb itself with only those who cannot lead even a relatively normal life choosing to undergo such procedures. It will be important for policy makers to come up with a strong set of guidelines, otherwise the results as you mention could be disastrous in many cases.

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