Remorse. Heartbreak. Embarrassment. If we could erase memories
that haunt us, would we? Should we? Scientists who work with patients suffering
from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are developing a new
science that has been called "therapeutic forgetting."
But by erasing traumatic memories, are we changing the person?
Are we erasing capacity for empathy?
Kris Oser, 37, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is an email fiend. A single
mother and director of communications for a market research company, she has to
be immediately accessible to executives and the news media.
That means Oser is often on the phone and messaging several people at the
same time -- and that can lead to trouble. In one recent gaffe, she mistakenly
emailed a reporter at The Wall Street Journal instead of her best
friend, asking her to pick up Oser’s daughter from school.
Last year, the President's Council on Bioethics expressed
concern that "memory numbing ... could dull the sting of one's own shameful
acts ... allow a criminal to numb the memory of his or her victims.
"Separating subjective experience of memory from the true
nature of the experience that is remembered cannot be underestimated," says
the Council's report. "Do those who suffer evil have a duty to remember and
bear witness, lest we forget the very horrors that haunt them?"
The research community is divided on this issue. "I think
there's an ethical concern," says Mark Barad, MD, professor of psychiatry
and biobehavioral sciences at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute. "It's
hard to estimate what's important about a memory, how the memory interacts with
who we are, how it affects our ability to empathize.
"Philosophically, I'm on the side of extinguishing fear
rather than blocking memory," Barad tells WebMD. "Given my experience
with people with PTSD, we're talking about a very severe downside to blunting
After all, would Holocaust survivors wish to blunt their
memories? Would that be good for society? Or should people have the freedom to
decide if they want horrible memories softened?
The Birth of Trauma
James McGaugh is a pioneer in the neurobiology of learning and
memory. He directs the Center for Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at
the University of California at Irvine.
For several decades, he has performed numerous animal and human
experiments to understand the processes involved in memory consolidation. He
believes strongly in the work being done to help people suffering from
An event becomes a strong memory, a traumatic memory, when
emotions are high, he explains. Those emotions trigger a release of stress
hormones like adrenaline, which act on a region of the brain called the
amygdala -- and the memory is stored or "consolidated," explains