I originally published an article back in 2009 on studies being done at the Univ. of Amsterdam that enticed with the promise of making the central thesis of the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind an actual reality. It’s been five years since that study and in the interim more studies have added to the science behind the fiction and so now question lingers: are we any closer to a drug that can wipe away selected memories?
Studies have been conducted that may one day result in a simple pill as a technique to make you forget unpleasant memories. Research indicates that the more intensive the emotional connection to a memory, the harder it is to forget. Which means that the memories you might like to exile the most through using a drug could differ quite significantly from the person next to you. Emotional scars may be caused by a romantic relationship gone sour as in the movie, but then again you might use an eternal sunshine pill for the purpose of erasing an embarrassing public humiliation when you were in middle school that has followed your psyche throughout the rest of your life.
The kickoff research study into an eternal sunshine pill was conducted at the Univ. of Amsterdam . Over the course of three days, volunteers were taught to associate the spiders with the pain of receiving an electrical jolt. The fear factor was measured by how much the participants blinked. A day later, the memory was recalled after the patients had been given a placebo or had been given propranolol. That beta-blocker propranolol had been shown to improve the reconstitution of memory in rats. So the question was: would propranolol work with human memory?
Day three was the big day. The evidence seemed to point to the potential of propranolol to eliminate the fear response that was not made concrete among those given the placebo. The primary function of such a pill that can take away the fear engendered by bad memories is directed toward those with phobias. The person with the phobia could, possibly, have that memory taken away and therefore be able to board a plane, touch raw chicken or feel safe inside a submarine. That would be the primary function, but we all know that a pill that can help you erase traumatic memories would be marketed toward more than just people who are pathologically afraid of something.
For instance, what about the memories that are at the root of PTSD? If you can’t recall the experience of the trauma through memory, wouldn’t the result be almost the same as if the trauma never occurred? A more recent study into the potential of an eternal sunshine pill examined the potential for its use to treat mental disorders caused by the recall of emotionally traumatic events rather than by the event itself.
If propranolol could actually have the ability to essentially cure PTSD by changing the course of a future tainted by bad memories of the past, why could it not also be used to blot out pleasurable memories from the past that stimulate bad behavior in your future? Part of the way that addiction works is through sinister reminders of all the good feelings you had when caught in its grip while conveniently allowing you to forget all the bad things. In other words, a cocaine addict is urged against all common sense to continually do something that is clearly not beneficial in part because of the memory of how good the cocaine made them feel. But what if you could give a cocaine user a drug that stopped them from remembering how good they felt but only allow them to remember how bad they felt? Would that stop them before addiction set it? And if it works for cocaine, why would blocking memories not work for any other addictive behavior? The question that must be asked, of course, is what happens when you destroy or impair a memory. Notice I said a memory and not Bad Memory. Memories can be devastating, sure, but there is really no such thing as a bad memory. To take a rather Kantian position, all memories are absolute goods because they help define who you are. The actions that the memory spurs…well, that’s a different story.