“Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Memories are powerful. They are the secret things that in many ways define the true essence of who we are. We’re a collection of processed experiences that shape the perception of our current reality both consciously and unconsciously. We are buoyed by the good memories, and plagued by the bad ones. The bad ones seem to linger behind every negative thought, every fear and anxiety. Just when something awful is forgotten, an unexpected trigger can send it all rushing back. Regret can smother you, even the good memories sting like a wound on fire.
We get caught in unproductive flashback loops that can flood us with depression, make us second-guess ourselves, and punish someone for a past hurt again and again. We also punish ourselves again and again. It might be kind of wonderful to forget. To not just forget, but erase forever, and that just might be possible. Would you do it if you could?
The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explored this idea in the context of a failed love affair. Jim Carrey’s character Joel Barrish sought out to erase his ex-girlfriend Clementine Kruczynski from his mind after she did the same thing to him. Once he signs up for this service (which is less preposterous than we thought) his memories of Clementine are erased as he recalls her, but once he’s in the midst of the happy memories, he clings to them desperately, trying to preserve them. The idea of erasing every memory of a particular person who is such a big part of your life feels like you are erasing a large part of yourself. Because YOU are the one who created the memory, your remembrance of them is in large part just an extension of yourself.
But, what if it’s not so definite? What if you could take the sting off of one or two really bad incidents? What if you witnessed something horrific? It might be nice to, in a way, physically extract those things from our mind so we could never go back and experience the painful emotions associated with the memory again.
Scientists have been working for over a decade on amnesia drugs that actually work in lab tests on rats, and in 2007 some successful trials were made on humans. These are not drugs like Xanax (or alcohol) that relax your mind and dull your senses enough for a bit that you forget what was troubling you, these drugs actually interfere with a protein necessary for remembering.
When we recall something, it seems like it’s been locked in a box somewhere, and in a way the information has, but every time we remember something, we reconstruct a new story of it using the information we recall.
Professor Joseph LeDoux at New York University administered a drug called U0126 to rats, and were able to get them to forget a specific memory.
In 2007 researchers at Harvard and McGill University in Montreal published a paper in the Journal of Psychiatric Research about treating 19 victims of accidents or rape with a drug called propranolol. Over the course of 10 days they administer the drug while asking them to recall traumatic events that happened 10 years before. Some were given a placebo, but the ones who were given the real drug experienced less stress when recalling the event. This is interesting because they could still remember the event, but what seems to have been eliminated is reliving the pain and trauma, which is definitely the most essential part of the memory worth forgetting.
Even the experiment with the rats didn’t exactly ensure that the rats didn’t recall the previous events – hearing a particular sound before receiving a shock – they just no longer had an emotional response to hearing the sound. According to Joseph LeDoux, propranolol is one of the mildest forms of “memory-blocking” drugs, but it’s the only one that’s considered safe for humans.
It’s kind of a relief, in a way, that right now there is no drug that would just completely erase a memory from your brain, but it is also comforting to realize that there may be options in the future to ease the emotional blow of recalling something traumatic.