The Joys of Brain Scrubbing: The Advantages of Memory Deletion in a Collectively Omniscient World

By Beato, Greg | Reason, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Joys of Brain Scrubbing: The Advantages of Memory Deletion in a Collectively Omniscient World


Beato, Greg, Reason


THE LAB RAT'S lot wasn't easy to begin with, but now it may get worse. At the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, researchers have figured out how to delete rodent memories. According to The New York Times, the SUNY researchers initially teach the rats to negotiate a chamber that shocks their feet if they choose the wrong path. Then, after the rats have learned the right path to take, their brains are injected with a drug called ZIP. The chemical neutralizes PKMzeta, a molecule that plays a crucial but not wholly understood role in memory retention. Once injected, the rats quickly forget their hard-earned knowledge regarding safe routes through the chamber. Every step they take offers a potential shock.

This development has troubling implications. Say the CIA starts torturing lab rats: Who would even know, if the rats retain no recollection of their ordeal? Imagine the crimes sexual predators could get away with if equipped with enough zip and a solid grasp of human neocortical columns. And don't even think about what could happen if the fashion industry could erase our memories of parachute pants and belly shirts.

Perhaps because the kind of memory management miracles that neuroscience has in store for us have been the stuff of science fiction, we tend to see their potential impacts through an extremely dramatic lens. On the one extreme, you have conspiracists predicting sinister government campaigns to turn us into docile slaves. On the other, you have idealists promising an end to post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's. In both cases, the presumption is that our imminent neurotechnologies will mostly involve erasing bad, profoundly significant memories. The stuff that wakes us up at night in a cold sweat. The stuff that makes shrinks rich.

But these predictions anticipate only a part of the story. When SUNY's researchers perfect their art to the point where they can erase specific memories as easily as we toss last year's Excel files in the Windows recycling bin, why waste that opportunity on your greatest demons? I'll be asking them to remove all memories of pizza, discovering A.J. Liebling, and riding a bike across the Golden Gate Bridge at dawn. It's the good memories I'd like to annihilate, and no doubt millions feel the same. Imagine falling in love for the first time, again and again and again; hearing your all-time favorite album with completely fresh ears; rediscovering the virtues of martinis.

Naysayers portray memory deletion as an easy out, a shortcut, a convenient way to sidestep unpleasantness. But it could also inspire hard work and renewed engagement. Think what it would be like if your mind were scrubbed of all references to your wife, your children, your closest friends. All their tired old tricks would be 100 percent engaging. Their groan-inducing quirks would be amusing, not annoying. And you'd be ready to do whatever it takes to win their love and friendship all over again. Of course, they'd probably have to have their memories stripped of your old bag of tricks too.

Think how much you used to like your job the first few months you spent at it. Think how easy it was to get in early, stay late, put in that extra effort. Erase your discontent, and you might also erase your laziness, your cynicism, your intra-office grudges that reduce productivity and effectiveness.

None of which is to say that using memory erasure as an easy out, a shortcut, or a convenient way to sidestep life's hard lessons is not a perfectly valid way to exercise your cognitive liberty. While it may be true that bad memories help us form our moral consciences by afflicting us with unpleasant emotions such as guilt and regret, it's also true that our natural inclination to forget contributes to our capacity for goodness and redemption as well. …

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