Heard about that stupendously amazing erase-all-your-bad-memories-forever drug yet? That’s the way it’s being reported, at any rate.
Upset about getting laid off last month?
Still steamed over that jerk who dumped you for your best friend?
Kiss the image of his grotty little face goodbye.
Have nightmares about how you forgot your lines in the third grade Christmas play?
Begone, thou foul recollection!
According to junk science reporters everywhere, recent research conducted at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Switzerland proves a drug that can erase all of these unpleasant memories may soon be a reality.
There are only two problems with this straight-out-of-a-Kate-Winslet-and-Jim-Carrey-film scenario. The first is that the actual research doesn’t support — and didn’t involve — this sort of selective hard drive memory deletion. The second is that the brain’s storage of memory is so hopelessly complex and inter-networked, truly erasing memories would require removing, or disabling, a ridiculously large portion of the brain. Like 3/4 of it.
The original research paper was published in the June issue of the medical journal, Neuron. The paper, titled “Amygdala Inhibitory Circuits and the Control of Fear Memory,” is written in the damn near impenetrable sciencespeak prose that infects all researchers as soon as their fingers touch a keyboard. (It’s not unlike the quasi-Medieval speech pattern bug that has raged, uninhibited, across science fiction and fantasy novels since Mr. Tolkein unleashed it onto an unsuspecting world in The Lord of the Rings.)
Translated into intelligible English, the paper reads, thus: The amygdala, located in the temporal lobe of the brain, is responsible for storing long-term memories related to extreme fear. The researchers found that rats injected with a drug that dissolved the myelin sheaths of the neurons in their amygdalas lost their previous petrifying fear of sounds they had come to associate with painful electric shocks. Before the administration of the drug, the rats reacted in fear to the sound, even if no shock followed. After the drug, they didn’t react at all.
Nowhere in the study were memories of lost love, humiliation, or sadness addressed. And that would have been pretty difficult, anyway, considering these are rats we’re talking about. I’m fairly certain there weren’t any female rats sobbing on their white-coated researcher’s shoulders over how Templeton or Nicodemus left her for that slag, Mrs. Frisby. The study focused solely on lower-order, fight-or-flight, fear-conditioned memories governed exclusively by the amygdala. And memories — especially in humans — are stored and maintained all over the cortex, not just in the amygdala.
We like to think of the brain as a sort of series of compartmentalized wonders: this part governs speech; this part, hearing; this part, sight; this part, how I felt when I got home and found that my dog had chewed a hole through the carpet I just paid too much to have laid down.
The brain isn’t like that. It’s a lot more like a keyboard, with different keys yielding different results, depending on how they are activated. If I type h-e, I spell one word with a particular meaning. If I type h-e-l-l, I spell another. And if I type h-e-l-l-o, I’ve got still another. H and E were in each. But the other letters they were connected to made all the difference.
The brain is a lot like that. There isn’t one bit that stores all your memories. There’s a little bit here and a little bit there and maybe even a bit over in that section too. Accessing a single memory — the time your boss chewed you out in front of the hot secretary when it wasn’t your fault — could involve three or four different portions of your brain. Good luck trying to erase that with a single injection.
And not only are the brain’s functions intricately interconnected, those functions, in some circumstances, can be transferred from one portion of the brain to another. The brain is astonishingly plastic. Not plastic as in Tupperware or inflatable beach balls, but in its ability for some portions to develop neural networks for things it would never develop under normal circumstances. You’d think that people who have experienced devastating trauma to their brains — from accidents or surgery — would lose all the functions normally located in that portion of their cortex. Not so. In many cases, the undamaged parts of the brain take over those functions with not much more than a slight hiccup. How bad would it suck to think you were paying to have a wonder drug blot out the worst moments of your life, only to realize the memories were all still alive and kicking?
Don’t think I’m saying there aren’t memories I would dearly love to banish forever. I’ve got so many, they’re jostling each other for first place in the queue. Like the one of my English professor reading aloud portions of my first ever college essay as an example to the class of how NOT to write.
Yeah, I could totally live without that memory.
Selective memory loss could also make everday interaction between aquaintances hopelessly frustrating. Take this possible conversation between my sister, Victoria, and I as an example:
ME: Hey, Vic, remember that time I totally killed you at Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit?
VICTORIA: What are you talking about? I don’t remember that.
ME: How can you not remember that?! I absolutely killed you! I won the game before you even had one pie!
VICTORIA: You’re making that up. That never happened.
ME: Of course it happened! You’re just a sore loser is all. And a liar.
VICTORIA: I’m sorry, what was that you just said to me?
Etc, etc, ad infinitum.
Memory is what makes us who we are. It gives our experiences — for better or worse — context and meaning. Bad memories are painful, but they are what give our good memories that special sparkle. They are the yin to our happy memory yang, the sour taste that makes the sweet and spicy stand out in the Pad Thai of our existence.
If I had never been desperately embarrassed by my English professor publicly sneering at my first essay, it wouldn't have meant as much, when, four years later, that same professor accosted me while I was leaving my last college English class I to tell me the final paper I had just turned in — about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – was one of the best things he’d ever seen written by an undergraduate.
It was worth the tears I shed over that first essay. Together, those are memories I’d dearly love to keep.
Take a look at the original study, "Amygdala Inhibitory Circuits and the Control of Fear Memory," here.