Sunday, June 3, 2012

A forgetting pill to erase painful memories

Most religious people are dualists.  They generally believe that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical.  Dualism is closely associated with the philosophy of René Descartes, which holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance. Descartes clearly identified the mind with consciousness and self-awareness and distinguished this from the brain as the seat of intelligence.  Hence, he was the first to formulate the mind–body problem in the form in which it exists today.  Dualism is contrasted with various kinds of monism.

I am a monist.  I do not believe that there is any credible evidence for dualism.  It may be comforting to believe in a soul, but the traditional forms of evidence, e.g., near-death experiences (NDEs), astral projection, ghosts of dead relatives, etc., have never been demonstrated under laboratory conditions and are not at all compelling to me.

Monism seems to fit the evidence that we see in the world.  For example, people with damage in certain areas of the brain often exhibit similar symptoms. It is like taking a part out of a car (or better yet, a computer). The car or computer will function (or not function) in predictable ways.

I was fascinated by a recent article in Wired dealing with the potential for a pill to erase painful memories.
As scientists have recently learned, the very act of remembering changes the memory itself. New research is showing that every time we recall an event, the structure of that memory in the brain is altered in light of the present moment, warped by our current feelings and knowledge. That’s why pushing to remember a traumatic event so soon after it occurs doesn’t unburden us; it reinforces the fear and stress that are part of the recollection.
This new model of memory isn’t just a theory—neuroscientists actually have a molecular explanation of how and why memories change. In fact, their definition of memory has broadened to encompass not only the cliché cinematic scenes from childhood but also the persisting mental loops of illnesses like PTSD and addiction—and even pain disorders like neuropathy. Unlike most brain research, the field of memory has actually developed simpler explanations. Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Even more startling, an equally small family of compounds could turn out to be a universal eraser of history, a pill that we could take whenever we wanted to forget anything.  And researchers have found one of these compounds.

1/ Pick a memory.

It has to be something deeply implanted in the brain, a long-term memory that has undergone a process called consolidation—a restructuring of neural connections.

2/ Recall requires neural connections by protein synthesis.

To remember something, your brain synthesizes new proteins to stabilize circuits of neural connections. To date, researchers have identified one such protein, called PKMzeta. Before trying to erase the targeted memory, researchers would ensure that it was ensconced by having the patient write down an account of the event or retell it aloud several times.

3/ Nuke the memory.

To delete the memory, researchers would administer a drug that blocks PKMzeta and then ask the patient to recall the event again. Because the protein required to reconsolidate the memory will be absent, the memory will cease to exist. Neuroscientists think they’ll be able to target the specific memory by using drugs that bind selectively to receptors found only in the correct area of the brain.

This is very much the premise of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favorite movies.

So what does memory research have to do with the mind-body problem?  Our memories are fundamental to consciousness.  Recognizing and reacting to the input of our senses based on past experience is what consciousness does.  However, if memories are so easily disrupted with brain chemicals, if it is possible to rewrite memories as easily as rewriting the software in a computer so that one's personality is completely altered, why should we posit a "self-awareness" that exists independently from the brain?

I suppose my engineering training has predisposed me to look at the brain as a type of computer.  When the computer is damaged, consciousness ends.  Stephen Hawking agrees.


  1. When are the pills going to be out?

  2. Can I be a part of this study?

  3. Please I need help! I need to forget so many bad memories and I can't talk about it with anyone and I really need your pill! Please give me your pill!

  4. I need this pill! I need to forget a lot of bad memories from my childhood. I don't mind losing the good memories as long as I forget the bad ones because they outweigh the good ones. It's not fair that children who were sexually abused have to live with those memories for the rest of their lives. I love science!

  5. I wish I had a pill to give. I'm really sorry for anyone who has to live with horrible memories. Talk with a psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I know one technique involves giving you drugs that induce pleasant feelings when you are asked to recall the painful events. The idea is to change the emotion associated with the event. Every memory is tagged with an emotion. Although it isn't the same thing as erasing the memory, it should make it easier to deal with. In my own experience, the pain I experienced after losing my faith made me want to commit suicide. Time heals most wounds (it did in my case), but sometimes people might need professional help. There is nothing wrong with that.

  6. I fell sick and thought I may die cos it took me not able to realise how to breathe. For about 6 month now the thought of death makes me fear, depressed and impatient. It has taken me off line my normal duties. Always thinking about how to forget about it and be like I was. I need a forgetting pill or an ect to bring me back to my conscious state with everyday activities.