If You Could Take Medicine To Forget Painful Memories, Would You?

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The ethical implications of forgetting painful memories are explored.

According to Quartz, medical strategies do exist which help a person forget painful memories. The strategies target the reconsolidation process, which is when memories are most vulnerable.

Analgesics and anesthesia have both been shown to ease the pain of traumatic memories. Beta blocker propranolol also helps to destabilize fearful memories, which are the most difficult to forget.

Rita Magil, for example, volunteered for an experimental PTSD treatment following a traumatic car wreck. She took a low dose of propranolol, which reduces activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain which processes emotions. The drug broke the connection between her factual and emotional memory. Although she did not forget the accident, she was unemotional about it.

A similar study was done with metyrapone in 2011. Metyrapone blocks the synthesis of cortisol, the stress hormone. In the study, men were given either a single dose of the drug, a double dose, or a placebo. When they retold a story they had heard before they were given the drug, the men who were given a double-dose were much less likely to remember the negative aspects of the story.

The 2003 report issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness” considers “memory-blunting” from an ethical standpoint. The report asks: “If we had the power, by promptly taking a memory-altering drug, to dull the emotional impact of what could become very painful memories, when might we be tempted to use it? And for what reasons should we yield to or resist the temptation?”

The report gives many reasons why people should not take this type of drug, including:

  1. “It risks making shameful acts seem less shameful, or terrible acts less terrible, than they really are.”

  2. “Having truthful memories is not simply a personal matter. Strange to say, our own memory is not merely our own; it is part of the fabric of the society in which we live.”

  3. “Perhaps more than any other subject in this report, memory is puzzling. It is both central to who we are as individuals and as a society, yet very hard to pin down—so variable in its many meanings and many manifestations.”

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