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S. Matthew Liao is a clinical associate professor of bioethics at NYU. He has written extensively on the ethics of enhancement and the rights of children to be loved. In 2007,[…]

Soon, neuroscientists will be able to use drugs to selectively erase traumatic memories from the brain. NYU bioethicist Matthew Liao thinks we should have the right to modify memories to improve our well-being.

Question: Why should people be allowed to erase their memories?

Matthew Liao:  So imagine that a drunk driver hits you and you’re… it crushes your leg and you’re completely traumatized by the event and they take you to the hospital and just before your operation they give you a pill to erase your memory of this traumatic event. Or imagine that your fellow soldier and… you’re a soldier and your fellow soldier gets blown up next to you and you’re very traumatized, then again they give you a pill to reduce the trauma of this particular event or imagine that you’re a heroin addict and you are… they give you a drug so that you can forget about your addiction in order to help you with the addiction.  It sounds like something from a movie.  Well, actually we’re getting pretty close to be able to do some of these things.  

So this is what we know now and what we can do now.  Basically memory is a system for storing and recalling experiences.  Our best account of memory right now is as follows.  Basically we experience certain events and a set of... a network of neurons get activated.  The more significant the event, the more... the stronger the connections between the neurons.  When we recall that particular event these neurons get... that network, that particular network gets reactivated again and so this is what we can do to affect, to modify our memories.  One is we can affect it at the storage level when it’s about to get stored, when it is about to get transferred from short term memory to long term memory and the way to do that is to affect the emotional strength of the storing process. So for example, propranolol, the drug, that’s how it works.  It works by weakening that storage process, weakening the emotional strength so that the memory doesn’t get stored into the long term memory.  The other process is through... is by affecting the recall of the memory.  Basically each time you recall a memory, the memory has to reconsolidate itself again and it needs proteins to do that and there… it’s been found that if there is excess protein that can disrupt the reconsolidation process thereby weakening the memory.  

The biggest limitation to memory modification right now is that basically as we have seen the memory is a network of neurons, so that means that basically it’s interconnected and it overlaps with one another, so that there is a danger that if you delete one you can delete other memories, so that is one of the biggest limitations right now.

So suppose you can perfect this technology what are some of the ethical issues?  Well basically memory is a piece of evidence so if you change your memory you can change what you believe to be true about the world and about yourself, so for example a soldier who takes propranolol this may… he may think that he is not... he really doesn’t want to be in a war when in fact, he lusts after the killing or you may believe something about yourself.  You may think that you’re really brave or cowardly or you may think that you’re really altruistic or selfish, but if you take some memory modification drugs you may change what you believe to be true about yourself, but these problems are not so worrying because one thing to remember is that a bit of falsehood might not be so problematic, so if you wanted to believe that you had a nice holiday so that you can feel more relaxed that may be okay as long as you don’t harm anybody.  Another thing to remember is that if the event is so important it’s not really just up to you because even if you can erase the memory in yourself other people will remember it, so even if it affects a bit of falsehood in you it might not affect other people as well.

Okay, so ultimately the point of using these drugs is to increase our personal well-being.  Now there is some obvious constraints to pursuing personal well-being.  One obvious constraint is to... sort of harm to others.  If you want to take these drugs so that you can feel less guilty when you commit a crime obviously this would constitute a harm to others and another constraint is harm to self.  An obvious example of that is if you just wipe all of your memories.  That would be...  In many cases that would be obvious harm to self. But there are also subtler forms of harm to self, self harm such as living in falsehood, affecting the way you react to certain situations morally and also your duties to remember certain things, but ultimately it seems that as long as you don’t harm other people you should be allowed to use these memory modification drugs in order to improve your personal well-being.

Could we ever zap memories using a machine like the one in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?"

Matthew Liao: Well you saw how they zap it, right? So it’s basically the whole network.  I think you’re zapping the whole network and that’s going to be pretty difficult without zapping other memories, but the way to do it I think is basically if you can get the right cues because basically you cue the memory, so if you can cue it right then only those networks come up and then you zap that then I think you can do it and actually there is some evidence of doing that.

If you look at FMI machines it’s kind of it seems like through correlations they can begin to figure out which part is… you know what people are thinking or what they are you know like when they’re imagining playing tennis, et cetera, et cetera, certain parts of the brain light up. And it seems like if you can get enough consistency, enough of a correlation that this is that particular memory then maybe you can begin to do that, but you’d have to do that many times and get you know a set of allotted correlation and stuff like that.  I think that would be the way to go.

Recorded July 27, 2010

Interviewed by Max Miller

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