Should we erase our memories?

Imagine we live in a world where you can go to a clinic and choose to have certain memories wiped away, erased forever. Think of all the terrible memories you have accumulated in your life, and about the prospect of them never being able to force themselves on your consciousness ever again. Would you go through the procedure? There’s a lot to discuss about the prospect of memory modification, and before I get going, it’s worth pointing out there are two broad aspects of memory modification that need to be addressed. One has to do with whether this is an option society wants to promote, or at the very least make available. The other has to do with the implications for the individual choosing or not choosing to modify their own memory. What are the consequences of making this sort of decision? How can one be aware of these consequences? And whose responsibility is it to make sure that people are aware of these consequences? I’m going to try to touch on each of these considerations a bit, understanding that I won’t be able to any one of them real justice by doing so. I’m going to completely leave out considerations of inserting memories. And I’m also leaving out any discussion of how these procedures can be abused by criminals, corporations or governments. As important as they are, I’m not sure anyone would reach the end of this post if I tried to tackle them here!

The role of memory in our sense of self is cannot be overstated. Memories play a huge role in learning, and how we as individuals change over time. Our personalities are a result of this, as seen in our behavior and the actions we decide to engage in at any given instant. To what degree can we separate the facts we know from who we are? Can we delete memories and still be the same person? We have to ask ourselves, how much of our political ideologies, our worldview, how we treat other people, and all sorts of other aspects of our personality are dependent on our experiences and memories, whether explicit or implicit? To what degree will removing certain memories alter all these related personality effects of memory?

Imagine an adult who was constantly teased as a child. Later in life the memories of this verbal abuse feel debilitating and the person would like to get rid of them. But these experiences also led the individual to develop into an extremely empathetic and kind person, never teasing others, and looking out for those who can’t defend themselves. Are we sure we can delete the memories of verbal abuse without also removing the impetus and motivation and fundamental character of the individual that developed as a result of that treatment? If the person who desired the memory alteration was aware this could be a consequences of memory deletion, would they do it? Similarly, removing a memory may remove the explicit aspect of our conscious experience that we think is causing our problems, but it may not change other aspects of how we behave and the kinds of circumstances we put ourselves in that may lead to other similar memories forming again (trauma is unlikely to be the target of these criticisms). Again, we just don’t know enough about the process to predict the outcomes.

Memory would never have evolved if there wasn’t a need for it, a survival benefit inherent in it. Making use of past experience for current behavior and decision making is of upmost importance in surviving and thriving. Can we learn from experiences if we consciously set things up to not remember them? We have to note the role that reflection and understanding plays in human development. Understanding why we have committed past acts, what those acts mean to us, how they have shaped us, and how we can act in the future based on these memories plays a huge role not only in our sense of self, but also in how we interact with the world.

But of course, there are a myriad of good reasons to want to erase certain memories. Some I already mentioned in my post the other day (trauma, humiliation, sadness, fear, etc…). Listing words though does not in itself justify the need to erase a memory, so it’s worth expanding on some of these a bit. An important reason has to do with wanting to change destructive habits, whether they be abuse, addictions, or violence. By removing targeted memories it’s possible we can remove the underlying causes that lead to these behaviors. I spoke about the importance of memory and our ability to reflect and learn from it. But what if a memory is so powerful, so emotional that it blocks someone from being able to rationally assess it and reflect on it? At the very least removing the emotional potency of the memory could allow a process of personal reflection and development to take place. And certainly removing some of the implicit factors that lead to certain types of behaviors could allow someone to be free of their negative influences.

Removing memories may also free us to become the people we want to be. It’s possible that memories, or implicit behavior as a result of memories, may block us from actualizing our potential, block us from becoming certain types of people that we have decided would be in our self interest. Maybe we are striving to be an ethical person, but certain memories from our past, which still influence our behavior, knowingly or unknowingly, block us from achieving this goal.

If there are both quality positives and negatives that come along with memory modification, how are we to decide whether it is right to allow people to alter to their memories? Or whether we as individuals should choose to do so? At this point we come to the deeper crux of the dilemma. Do we have a duty to keep our memories, and is the decision to delete or insert memories a choice we should be allowed to make for ourselves? Determining whether we have a duty to retain our memories is difficult. Who is this duty to? Do we owe ourselves to remember our lives, or is this a duty we owe other people to remember things? Are we insulting someone else by removing them, or something that had to do with them, from our memories? This seems like a problematic argument. First, it starts out committing the naturalistic fallacy. Just because memory is a natural part of human consciousness, does not in itself mean we need to maintain it all costs. While an argument can be made that we have a duty to remember, it is not the default position. But further, if we have some sort of duty to remember things, does this mean we also have an ethical imperative to take memory enhancing drugs to make sure we don’t forget? Where does this duty end?

This idea is also made problematic by the fact that it assumes a model of memory that doesn’t match up with reality. Don’t we lie to ourselves all the time? Don’t we forget things all the time? There is a myriad of data that tells us that memory is far from some sort of accurate process of retention and recall of the events around us. The list of ways our memory can go wrong is vast. Our initial process of storing a memory can be in error based on biases in our perception and psychology, it can be influenced by our prior knowledge or our emotional state. Our recall of the memory may be in error due to errors in retrieval, source confusion, or activation of concept or category associations. It could also be due to the natural changing of a memory over time due to the process of reconsolidation. The fact that our memories are integral to who we are does not in and of itself force us to the conclusion that altering memories is wrong. It is simply a purposefully active process that in some cases mimics, and in other cases extends, already present natural processes of memory modification.

So if the proceeding arguments are valid we’re left with a final question; do we have right to make the choice to delete memories for ourselves? Even supposing the erasure has disastrous effects for the person, who we are to stop it? Considerations along these lines could easily lead into a much more in depth conversation regarding civil liberties and free choice in society, a conversation which would necessarily be too long for current purposes, as it would require defending one or another political theory. I won’t attempt that here, but I will point out that the ethical considerations revolving around this issue, as with many other ethical issues, cannot be adequately addressed without in part resolving fundamental issues to do with the role of an individual in society, and the relationship between governments and their citizens. It involves to some degree defining what is the goal of a good life, how we can live ethically, and the then deciding how decisions to modify memory help contribute or detract from these goals. It may also involve determining what virtues are worth praising in society and how the decision to modify memory lines up with those virtues.

Barring some of these other conversations, we can still discuss some of the factors that go into the choice to modify a memory, or even the choice to make memory modification available to the public, to continue to pursue research that can lead to memory modification as an actuality. There is a difference between use and abuse, and rarely can we predict all the uses which a scientific breakthrough will be put to. Just because something can have harmful consequences, does that mean we shouldn’t research it? Shouldn’t make it available? This is problematic, there are many things we as individuals engage in which if abused can be dangerous. Alcohol and cigarettes are prime examples. The fact that someone can die by drinking too much alcohol does not cause us to outlaw it. And the fact that someone can cause harm to others if they are unsafe when drinking alcohol also has not caused us to outlaw it. We as a society have decided that the fact that alcohol can be abused is not a good enough reason to take away the right for others to drink it. Ownership of guns is another obvious example.

If it is true that memory is constantly being distorted anyway through natural processes, it would seem that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of memory erasure. But as with most things, the devil is in the details. There are a host of problems that come along with the plausibility of being able to remove targeted memories, and if we are not careful there can be all sorts of unintended consequences from trying to remove a memory. Beyond the plausibility, there are considerations that we as individuals have never had to face in the normal progression of our lives that can come along with the ability to delete memories at will, which get at the root of some fundamental aspects of what it means to a be person, to be a self. If we as a society decide that the benefits of memory distortion outweigh the negatives, and that individuals should have the right to choose whether to undergo the process of memory distortion, we at the very least need to respect the ramification of this process on those individuals. And we need to do everything in our power to arm people with all the knowledge available about what the consequences of this decision might be. Removing memories of a brutal rape or child sexual abuse seem like no brainers to us, but in this situation, it is not necessarily the extremes, but rather the seemingly mundane deletions that may in the end prove to be the most significant.

Taking a page from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we as the viewers are given a surreal look inside the head of the main character. We follow along with him as he travels through an unconscious dream state watching his memories being wiped away before his eyes. As the memories are slowly erased, starting from the end of his relationship with his ex girlfriend, and moving on down through to the beginning, the main character starts to have second thoughts. He realizes the value and happiness that many of these memories have brought him and furiously tries to protect them by hiding his ex girlfriend in various parts of his subconscious, thus protecting her from deletion. He was able to regret his decision as it was being done to him, but in real memory erasure (assuming it’s possible), we might not know how worse off we are after an erasure procedure, what we’re missing, and what changes we have gone through. These are questions that not only do we not have any empirical data on; they are questions that might in principle be unanswerable. No one should make the decision to modify their memories lightly, regardless of how seemingly sure they are in their desire.

Have you read my other post where I discuss the plausibility of memory erasure?