New shock therapy used to erase bad memories

Letting go: Jim Carrey tries to escape his past in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.

Scientists have found a way to delete traumatic memories using electric shocks to the brain. Would the treatment free us from psychological scars or mean losing vital parts of who we are?

The world has been jolted into a new awareness of how precious memories can be after a warning from the Alzheimer’s Society: by 2050, 135m people will be afflicted by dementia. And on Monday, researchers announced that blood tests may be able to help predict the disease’s onset.

But what if someone actually wants their past obliterated?

While some scientists fight to preserve our memories, others have found a way to erase it. Dutch researchers say they have developed a procedure which uses electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to zap recollections out of the mind.

In a series of experiments, they showed patients cards which told an emotionally disturbing story. A week later, the patients had their memory of the story refreshed. Doctors then gave them a mild electric shock. When they were asked about the card’s story a day later, they could no longer recall it.

Scientists used to think that once a memory was lodged in the brain, it was permanently stored. But studies ten years ago found that when a memory is recalled, it becomes momentarily unstable and can be modified. Usually the memory will stabilise again and strengthen itself in a process known as reconsolidation, but outside influences can intervene when the brain is vulnerable.

If someone undergoes ECT while they are holding an unstable memory, it can be shocked out of existence. Just one step away from the card experiment is erasing people’s deep memories. At least one woman so far has had her mind altered in this way.

Although scientists are not certain why the therapy works, they are excited about its implications. Traumatised soldiers and those plagued by memories of horrific accidents could finally be freed from the burden of the past. It could offer a fresh start for many who have been living miserable lives and new hope for those who wish they could just forget.

No way back

Some say that if this procedure becomes widely available, it will help millions of people worldwide to overcome their problems. There would be no more gnawing guilt and sad memories if the mind could be liberated from past burdens. Getting over a miserable break up would no longer take months, but minutes — an idea explored in the Jim Carrey film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’.

But others warn that a person’s past is central to their identity and we should not tamper with it. The oncoming dementia epidemic is terrifying exactly because it will attack our sense of self and crush the relationships built up over a lifetime of shared experience. Science is too blunt a tool to meddle with this delicate part of us. People also regularly change their minds about what they want — but once a memory is deleted, it is gone forever.

You Decide

  1. Would you erase your bad memories?
  2. ‘This memory erasing technology will be more harmful than good and should never be used.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Write your own definition of what memory is and what it means to you. Compare it with the rest of the class.
  2. Use the links in Become an Expert to find out the details of the memory erasing therapy. Write a report explaining how it works.

Some People Say...

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’William Faulkner”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why would I want to erase any of my memories?
If you would not want to change any memories then you are lucky! Many people’s lives are affected by what they have been through and an American clinical study found that one in eight soldiers returning from war was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. This new treatment may improve the lives of millions of people.
But couldn’t the treatment have a lot of terrible consequences?
Memory alteration has proven a ripe subject for science fiction. What if a government were to rehabilitate prisoners not through prison time, but by erasing their memories so much that they became different people altogether? Could people be brainwashed into thinking only what others want them to think? The treatment raises many ethical quandaries.

Word Watch

Dementia
The Alzheimer’s Society says that 44m people around the world currently suffer from dementia. Treating the disease costs $600bn a year, though cancer research gets eight times as much funding as dementia.
Electroconvulsive
ECT has become famous through horrific depictions of its use in the books and films of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Developed in the 1930s after doctors noticed that those suffering from depression and schizophrenia seemed to feel mildly better after a fit, its use became widespread in the 50s and 60s. Many believe it is degrading and inhumane.
Unstable
Many doctors are concerned that people can be implanted with false memories when a memory is unstable. For instance, if an investigator is asking an innocent person where they were on a certain night, they might influence that person into thinking that they might have done something wrong, when in reality they did not. It shows how unreliable our memories can be.

Subjects

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