In which the New York Times offers “hope” about editing memory

In an April 5th story in the New York Titled titled “Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory” Benedict Carey offers readers hope that soon neuroscience will offer us a truly miraculous service: the ability to erase our memories.

Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain. Could make you forget a chronic fear, a traumatic loss, even a bad habit.

Researchers in Brooklyn have recently accomplished comparable feats, with a single dose of an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain critical for holding specific types of memory, like emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.

The drug blocks the activity of a substance that the brain apparently needs to retain much of its learned information. And if enhanced, the substance could help ward off dementias and other memory problems.

There are many good reasons to be critical of an article like this. Here are a few.

1) Conflating behaviors like bad habits and memories of experiences like traumatic losses as manifestations of memory, is to conflate procedural (behavioral) memory with narrative memory, two kinds of memory that operate in very different ways, and even in different parts of the brain. The famous case-study patient HM, a man who lost his ability to make and retain new narrative memories (that is, memories about things that happened in his life, the kinds of things you and I take for granted as stories we can tell our roommates at the end of the day) was still able to learn new procedures after his accident, an indication that these two kinds of memories are made and stored different in the brain.  “Learned information” doesn’t mean very much as a category on its own from a neurological perspective.

To suggest that diverse forms of memory could all be altered by a single drug based on work with mice–who have less complex brains and may have fewer forms of memory–is a claim that readers should take with a large grain of salt.

2) The implication that once something has been opened as a topic to science, that we can move out of the dark ages where only “artists and writers” dealt with the topic completely misses the point of art and literature. Welcoming an era were scientists rather than artists and writers can give insight into human nature implies that individual human experience is no longer important to consider. But science can only give us averages, norms, universals. Understand human nature also requires attention to diversity, idiosyncrasy, and uniqueness.

“Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.”

Again, why attack writers and artists? Have they really never challenged our understandings of memory? What about Faulkner? Woolf? Joyce? Why do we want to alter our understanding of human nature (to the extent that we really have an accurate one anyway) wouldn’t it be better just to improve it? Shouldn’t we also be concerned that the key to understanding suggested by this article is intervention in the brain? Humans adapt to their environment, their tools. In a world where we have the chemical means to alter our minds, human nature is itself an unstable category, not a revealed one.

3) Regarding the ocean floor and other long-studied objects of scientific discovery: Natural scientists been poking brains for a long, long time–at least since Willis’ anatomic work during the English Civil War. The rhetoric of the brain as an uncharted territory is more of a reflection of how people using sophisticated current tools, like neurochemicals and MRI machines see the past.

The brain is just the next great frontier in a culture that likes to imagine it’s shedding the light of inquiry and reason on something new. But astronomy knew a great deal about space before space exploration, and sailors knew the sea before there were submarines. The primacy of experiment and certain sort of penetrative, interventionist standard of knowledge present in Western culture since Boyle’s air-pump experiments of the 17th century makes it useful for those seeking to justify their interventions in nature to build up a “mystique” around the known-but-not-penetrated.

4) Overall this article makes many problematic assumptions about what people want. Do people they want to have their traumatic memories erased? The point of traumatic memory is to teach us a lesson, many believe. Even if we don’t like it, the traumatic memories of those who have been abused or raped or committed atrocities in war can serve as a testimony for a society about the ways in which its members suffer. The ability to erase these memories is a step towards condoning atrocity: if memory is erased, then it’s not so bad, right?

If all it takes to get over a bad habit is to take a pill, then there is no individual moral triumph in working to overcome it.

Moral questions are touched upon:

“This possibility of memory editing has enormous possibilities and raises huge ethical issues,” said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist at Harvard. “On the one hand, you can imagine a scenario in which a person enters a setting which elicits traumatic memories, but now has a drug that weakens those memories as they come up. Or, in the case of addiction, a drug that weakens the associations that stir craving.”

Researchers have already tried to blunt painful memories and addictive urges using existing drugs; blocking PKMzeta could potentially be far more effective.

Yet any such drug, Dr. Hyman and others argue, could be misused to erase or block memories of bad behavior, even of crimes. If traumatic memories are like malicious stalkers, then troubling memories — and a healthy dread of them — form the foundation of a moral conscience.”

However, rather than treating these ethical questions seriously, Carey then jumps back to praising the potential grand offerings such a memory erasing drug might offer:

“For those studying the biology of memory, the properties of PKMzeta promise something grander still: the prospect of retooling the engram factory itself. By 2050 more than 100 million people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, scientists estimate, and far more will struggle with age-related memory decline.” 

Does curing Alzheimer’s really warrant unleashing a technology that could unhinge the moral foundation of society? Or identity for that matter: since John Locke and many scholars since have argued that our identity is founded on memory. Or is this just another example of a writer whose insights we should abandon in order to embrace the new, editable memory offered by such drugs?

This article reads like a sales pitch for getting investors for small researcher companies that promise products that may never exist. How would you pass a clinical trial for a pill that destroys memory? Side effects include: memory loss.

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