The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Come and Get These Memories

To borrow a line from Martha Reeves, “Come and get ’em, come and get ’em. And take them away.

Seriously though, don’t you have some memories you could do without? C’mon. Something you wish had never happened? Something you’d like to forget? Maybe something you’d erase if you could? What would you erase if you could?

I’ve asked these questions before, back when I reviewed Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and I’m still asking them. I guess that’s because of my own ADD-related memory problems, which can be pretty disruptive in terms of working, living my everyday life, etc. Without treatment that is. On the one hand, there are days when I’d give almost anything for something that would improve my memory to the some level of normalcy. (I don’t know what a normal level of functioning is, memory-wise. The treatment I’m using now helps some, but there’s no “curing” ADD. Thus, speaking of memory-related movies, I felt a special affinity with the main character in Memento


Ironically, on the other hand, there are some pre-treatment ADD-related memories I wouldn’t mind getting shed of. Humiliations. Dismal failures. Lost jobs. Lost relationships. Depression. That why Spotless Mind appealed to me. And, despite the possibility that losing those memories might mean losing part of myself, the idea of a drug that wipes out bad memories sounds pretty tempting.

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A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research reports that researchers at Harvard and Montreal’s McGill University are getting good results from propranolol, a drug used in the treatment of amnesia, that appears to block, if not completely remove, bad memories on a selective basis.

The drug was tested using 19 victims of various kinds of trauma, including accidents and rape. Some subjects were given propranolol, others a placebo. Researchers say that in those receiving the drug, the biochemical pathways that serve memory were disrupted sufficiently enough to dull, if not erase, the most painful recollections.

You can argue that if science is capable of doing this, then people shouldn’t have to remember terrible things at all. It’s a tempting notion, a siren song, no doubt about it. But is it ultimately healthy? I’m no shrink and I have no answer. But I think it’s worth asking the question.

Now, imagine the possibilities here. It looks like the research is geared towards people who have lived through extremely traumatic events; the kind that leave you with post-traumatic stress disorder, which can be a chronic, debilitating condition that’s difficult to treat. (Think terminally shell-shocked war veterans.) But the idea of a kindly edited life (think Robin Williams in The Final Cut) — a virtual “director’s cut” of your own life, if only in your head — would have to be appealing to some people.

What’s fully is that the medication is actually an old one, used to used in combination to other drugs to treat hypertension.”Reversible amnesia” is listed among the side effects, which also include everything from congestive heart failure to “loss of libido,” as well as the usual suspects: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, tinnitus, dizziness, drowsiness, depression, vertigo, anorexia, and a bunch of other things I can’t pronounce or describe. From the sound of that list, it seems like the price of a happier past might be an unpleasant present. But the side-effects don’t necessarily happen to everybody. So, it might be worth the risk.

Of course, as Tony Long pointed out on the Wired blog, there may be another price to pay.

Is there an ethicist in the house?

… Like anyone who has lived a life, I’ve got my share of baggage, some of it better forgotten. But if offered a pill tomorrow to make all the bad stuff miraculously disappear, I’d turn it down. I may not like the pain of remembering, but I know it’s a part of who I am.

And so the memories I’d usually rather forget are part of me as well, because each of them has changed me, in someways for the better and in other ways perhaps for the worse. If I “erased” them, would I also erase the ways in which they shaped or molded my character? If I’d never had those humiliations and dismal failures, or could act as though they never happened, would I be more a more confident person? Would I have less doubt about my abilities and what I can accomplish? On the other hand, would I be less compassionate? Would I have less empathy for people who are experiencing their own failures, losses, and humiliations?

Would I be a better person without those experiences? Or am I better person for having had them? Have I grown because of them? Or because of what I learned from them and how I used what I learned?

Of course, I’ve got the luxury of having memories that are unpleasant, but nowhere as near as the experiences of some of the people in the study. I’m not mentally reliving an accident, injury, or assault over and over in my mind, from which this drug might offer some relief. If I were a doctor listening to myself pour out all of the above, I’d probably tell me to “get over it” and show me the door while muttering something about having to help some people who have real traumas they’re living with every day. That is, unless there’s money to be made selling that relief to people who need it much less, but have convinced themselves (or been convinced) that they need it more than they really do.

The one major drawback I can see is that our memories are not entirely our own. Most of those moments we’d rather forget were shared with other people, people who might not have our “director’s cut,” and may thus have the annoying habit of telling us what happened in the theatrical release that everyone else saw.

But, then you can just say you don’t know what they’re talking about. And mean it.


  1. I have a friend who is a therapist. When we were on vacation a year ago, something bad/sad/troubling happened to me. She wanted to do therapy on me that week to help get rid of the memory. I refused. It wasn’t so bad as to impair my life or work – and the memory of it I believe will help me do something differently in the future. I want to use it for growth.

    It’s hard to know where to find that line of memories that hurt and those that help. But it’s an interesting discussion, to be sure.

  2. I’d like to be able to selectively delete bad memories as they come up. If there is one that’s sad but poignant — I might keep it. But the ones that make you sigh out loud and come back to visit now and then… I’d love to have a delete key.