If you could simply pop a pill and erase all your bad memories, would you do it? Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? After all, given a choice, which one of us would want to be haunted by bad experiences for the rest of our lives? All of us would be queuing up for the miracle pill the moment something unpleasant happened. Right?
Well, think long and hard before you make that choice, because this could well become part of our reality soon. Yes, even as you read this column, scientists are working hard to perfect a pill that could wipe out our bad memories as if they had never existed.
In case you’re wondering about the mechanics of this, this was how the experiment went. A group of volunteers were shown a picture of some spiders and given low-intensity electric shocks while they were looking at it to create a bad memory. They were then divided into two groups. The first group was given the pill – a beta-blocker of some sort – to block out the memory. The second group was given a placebo.
When the two groups were shown the picture of the spiders again, the second group reacted with more fear than the first (who had presumably erased the memory of the electric shocks thanks to the pill). When the effects of the pill had worn off, the two groups were tested again. The first group again showed less fear, proving that the memory loss had been permanent.
My first introduction to the memory pill (or should that be loss of memory pill?) came in an episode of Boston Legal. The case was as follows: a teenager had been raped and her psychiatrist father wanted her to take the pill so that she wouldn’t have to cope with the memory of that traumatic event for the rest of her life. The daughter wanted to take the pill as well, because she didn’t see any reason why she should carry this horrific experience with her forever.
The problem was the mother, who did not want her daughter’s head messed about with drugs. And who did not believe that it was either ethical or moral to use modern medicine to erase memories. Since the parents were divorced, the case ended up in court. I won’t give away the verdict in case you haven’t seen the episode yet, but suffice it to say, the arguments on both sides were compelling.
But while the moral dilemma this presented did make me think, I forgot about it soon enough. After all, it sounded like the stuff of science fiction, not something that you and I would have to grapple with in our lives (or lifetimes). But recent reports in the international press suggest that this could be reality sooner than we think.
Well, how would this work in real life? Could we just decide at any point that we didn’t want a particular memory cluttering up our heads and simply erase it? And would this necessarily make us happier as a consequence? Well, I’m not too sure about that.
Sure, it sounds tempting to think that we would never have to remember anything painful. That you could pick and choose which memories you want to preserve.
But honestly, why would you want to do that? How could we possibly value our good memories if we didn’t have any bad ones to compare them with? If all that we kept with us were our positive experiences then how could we possibly learn from the negative ones? And in the process of excising our bad memories wouldn’t we also run the risk of erasing the valuable life lessons we had learnt through them?
But more than that, we would lose important bits of our life as well in the process. Why would you want to erase the memory of losing a parent, a grandparent or even a spouse, no matter how heart-breaking it might be? Keeping those memories enshrined in your heart is just one way of honouring them, of keeping them alive even after their deaths. Would you be willing to erase the memory of your first love, no matter how badly it ended? Or even the grief you felt when your child went off to boarding school?
I don't think so. All such events teach us something: about coping, about compartmentalising, about compromise. In short, they teach us about life. Can you imagine how much harder it would be to cope with a fresh crisis if we didn’t have this wealth of experience to fall back on?
As the cliché goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s because you learn something from every setback you experience, every trauma you undergo. And when you emerge at the other side, you are a stronger person as a consequence. But imagine if you could simply wipe out all this life experience by popping a pill. Surely, you would be a lesser person for your loss.
Memories are a funny thing. They link us to people, they connect us to our past, and they root us in the present. At the end of the day, we are but a sum total of our memories. So why would you want to halve them and become half the person that you could be.
That’s why I intend to hold all my memories – the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the ridiculous – close to my heart. Because all of them together make me the person I am today. And no little white pill is going to change that.